Tag: counseling

Suicide ‘survivors,’ counselors discuss uncomfortable subject, stigma at powerful CLS event

Adam Carter

Adam Carter

For Adam Carter, the moment came some 15 years ago in the preschool classroom where he taught.

Three-year-old Malcolm would not – or perhaps could not – sleep during the nap time; instead, Carter remembers, the young boy asked to climb onto his teacher’s lap.

Carter would have rather taken those few moments to rest himself, or to sanitize the classroom and its toys, but he nodded and plopped into the rocking chair. Malcolm joined him.

“He said, ‘Did you know that my grandpa just died?’ ” says Carter, who did not know. “Malcolm, at 3 years old, said, ‘I have mixed feelings about that.’ ”

For Stephanie Weber, the moment came nearly 40 years ago. She had recently “retired” from teaching to become a stay-at-home mom to four children, the youngest of whom was only 11 months old.

Weber’s mother, who had tried to die by suicide two-and-a-half years before, succeeded in her second attempt. She was 61.

It stirred within Weber feelings of shock, grief and anger, and bestowed on her a new title.

“The initials by our names are ‘survivor,’ ” Weber says. “We have been down in the trenches where we never wanted to be.”

Laura Bartosik

Laura Bartosik

Laura Bartosik’s moment came only three years ago. Her son, Seth, “so likeable, so compassionate,” chose to take his life at the age of 20.

Bartosik and her husband, Brett, overwhelmed with shock, tears and guilt, struggled to understand. Their only child was gone.

Seth was always “a happy-go-lucky youngster” and “a social butterfly.” Teachers told the proud parents that Seth was “a joy to have in class” and “a chatty kid.” He loved to fish, skate, play hockey and ride his skateboard.

Two years after he graduated from DeKalb High School, he was ready to attend culinary school. The taste of his bread pudding with caramel sauce is one his mother cannot forget; her voice breaks in sorrow when she says that she’ll never get to taste it again.

“I never imagined that this lovable kid, this social butterfly, would take his own life,” Bartosik says. “You feel your heart just breaking.”

Carter, Weber and Bartosik – their lives all jarred and redirected by personal grief or the grief of others – were among five panelists Oct. 12 at the NIU College of Education’s Community Learning Series on “Suicide Prevention: Sharing Strategies of Care.”

Panelists also included Brooke Ruxton, who serves NIU students, and Vince Walsh-Rock, who works with students at Downers Grove South High School.

Suzanne Degges-White

Suzanne Degges-White

Organized by the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, the evening was dedicated to what Chair Suzanne Degges-White called “breaking the silence.”

It was a night of courage and questions, capped by a performance from Aurora’s Simply Destinee dance troupe, formed in honor of Destinee Oliva, who died by suicide in 2010 at the age of 16.

It was also a night with a challenge to “end the stigma” and to “ask the hard question” to those who might seem suicidal: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”

Mental health issues impact all ages and all people, something made vividly clear through the stories from the panelists. However, when it comes to suicide, many people are reluctant to confront it or to even speak its name aloud.

“We have to say the word,” Weber told the audience inside the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center. “Saying the word ‘suicide’ doesn’t cause someone to take their life.”

“Talking about death and talking about dying is hard. It’s hard all the time,” Carter added. “These are conversations that are hard to have, but they’re worth having.”

Ruxton, director of Counseling and Consulting Services at NIU, related the story of a former NIU student who earned excellent grades, was active in extracurricular organizations and held leadership positions on campus.

Despite her outward appearance, she worked hard to keep her inner suffering a well-guarded secret. She contemplated suicide every day. She cut herself to treat the sadness. When she chose to seek help from Ruxton, it took three or four therapy sessions for her to utter even one word; during those appointments, the young woman could only curl up into a ball and cry.

Brooke Ruxton

Brooke Ruxton

“I could see the pain, so I just sat with her,” Ruxton said. “I helped her to breathe.”

At the end of each appointment, Ruxton asked important questions: “Can you come back next week? Are you going to be safe until next week?”

The answers, fortunately, were always “yes.”

Eventually, as graduation arrived and their counseling relationship ended, the young woman gave Ruxton a note of thanks with a quote from Elizabeth David, a 20th century writer from the United Kingdom: “There are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back.”

“What meant most to her was feeling cared about,” Ruxton said.

Around 40 percent of students who visit the NIU Counseling and Consulting Services have considered suicide, she said. Around 13 percent of those have tried to kill themselves.

Young people today are “navigating this world that’s constantly sending them information” via social media, she said. When mental health issues arise, they might feel ashamed or embarrassed by what could seem to them signs of weakness.

“Not every person who is struggling is going to say, ‘I’m having a hard time, and I’m going to go see a counselor,’ ” Ruxton said.

Sadly, she added, the stigma of suicide prevents many from receiving the critical intervention they desperately need from friends, family and others in their lives.

“People don’t know where to start. They’re afraid to cross a line or open a can of worms,” she said.

However, she added, “you don’t have to fix it right there and then.”

Vince Walsh-Rock and Stephanie Weber

Vince Walsh-Rock and Stephanie Weber

Walsh-Rock remembers cases of suicidal thoughts among Downers Grove South students as “minimal” when he started there 20 years ago. Now, he said, the staff under his supervision bring two – or sometimes three or four – such reports each day.

Many teens feel a “pervasive isolation,” he said, a type of trauma that requires compassion and action. Their young minds can believe that “this is the worst thing that’s ever happened – and it’s happening to me.”

Consequently, he teaches “depression literacy” and uses “threat models” that clearly signal to caregivers and others when they need to access appropriate services.

He also empowers everyone from teachers and school administrators to custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and secretaries to “see something, say something.”

“If you work in isolation,” he said, “you’re going to make mistakes.”

NIU’s Carter, an assistant professor of trauma counseling in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, has concentrated his career on intervening in the lives of preschool children.

Despite their tender ages, and as impossible as it seems, he said, there are 4-year-olds with thoughts of hurting or killing themselves. It’s as easy as walking in front of moving cars or jumping out of windows, he said.

Carter prepares future counselors to understand the grief experiences of children ages 3 to 5 – “it looks different,” he said – to help parents and caregivers communicate with the little ones.

“It’s something we as adults tend to be very afraid of talking about,” he said. “We don’t want to have these conversations with them.”

Aurora’s Simply Destinee dance troupe performed at the end of the evening.

Should the unthinkable happen, Bartosik said, survivors can find ways to move on.

For the Bartosiks, the answers lay in honoring their son’s memory and by supporting, teaching and empowering his friends and other young people.

They first opened their home as a safe space for Seth’s friends to share grief and ask questions. “We thought, ‘We can all stumble through this together, or we can let the kids just suffer through this all alone,’ ” she said, “but that’s not who we are.”

Next, they launched a non-profit organization called Project Seth in the hopes that sharing their son’s story could potentially save the lives of others.

“This is how we got our hope. This is how we make it through every day without Seth,” she said. “He didn’t do anything wrong. Something was wrong – and that’s why he took his life.”

Weber, the executive director of Suicide Prevention Services of America, counseled the Bartosiks in their mourning.

Her love for suicide survivors is the foundation of all her work, which includes education and training, a suicide hotline, support groups, public speaking and, of naturally, counseling. “I am honored that they trust me with their pain,” she said, “and we move forward together.”

Of course, she acknowledged, not every answer will come.

“You have to keep asking yourself ‘Why?’ until you no longer have to keep asking. The person who has that answer can’t tell us,” she said. “We finally have to let that go and move on.”

Mark McGowan, NIU Newsroom



New juvenile justice course explores ways to lower number of youth entering ‘the system’

Teresa Fisher

Teresa Fisher

Teens who find themselves on the wrong side of the law are nothing new – such stories have flickered on movie screens for a century – but the need to identify new strategies to support them never ends.

A new course in the NIU Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education this fall is providing specific preparation for counselors to understand the family, societal and institutional factors that can contribute to pre-adjudication, adjudication and acclimation back to communities.

“Juvenile Justice: Education, Preventions, Interventions and Counseling Strategies” is offered by the College of Education to graduate students, advanced undergraduate students and counselors in the field.

Professor Teresa Fisher conceived the course when she realized that many of her doctoral students shared her research interest in the concept of resiliency.

Some of those students worked with juveniles as counselors and probation officers; others spent time in the “juvie” system themselves. All of her co-instructors bring experience with the criminal justice system.

“Making one wrong decision can create a very negative cycle for youth. They can get caught up in the system, and start a path with gang involvement and recidivism,” says Fisher, a professor of counseling in the College of Education. “I want students in the course to get a comprehensive view of young people becoming involved with juvenile justice.”

Unfortunately, it’s a complex picture.

juvenile-justiceCommon factors include trauma, poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, a lack of positive role models and family environments and histories that tend to perpetuate life outside the law, she says.

Detention centers are rife with issues. “They often get a bad rap for not being very effective,” she says. “They don’t always have counselors who can address the specific needs of youth offenders, and gang behavior is often maintained.

Schools pose multiple challenges.

Students dealing with chronic tardiness or truancy can easily end up in the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This is primarily due to the increase of police officers in the schools, Fisher says, adding that minor infractions that were previously resolved by school officials now lead to records in the juvenile justice system.

Students in Fisher’s course will learn how to identify those teens who are on destructive paths as well as preventive measures to steer those teens toward more productive lives.

Instructors also will teach effective counseling strategies that can help put teens already in the system on a positive footing when they return to their communities.

Field trips are planned to juvenile detention centers for students to better comprehend teens, their needs and the programming provided to assist them. These encounters will prove mutually beneficial to the teens and the college students, Fisher says.

“We will have an opportunity to present directly to small groups that are detained – personal development skills, anger management, conflict resolution, goal-setting,” she says.

chairsStudents can use some of that time to conduct focus-group sessions to learn directly from the youth: Have they been detained before? If so, why are they back again? What do they like or dislike about the facility? What will help them get out of the juvenile justice system?

“Frequently, people who’ve not been in detention will think, ‘Oh, these youth are not approachable,’ or, ‘They’re so much different than I am,’ ” Fisher says. “I want students to understand, ‘These are young people who didn’t have the same opportunities that I had, or didn’t have the skills I had. However, we’re more similar than different.’ ”

The course also will discuss ways to work with parents of youth in – or close to – becoming involved in the system.

Fisher will encourage students to teach parents about effective communication, how to set ground rules, how to understand behavioral change and how to create age-appropriate consequences as well as reward systems to support positive behavior.

Students will learn the importance of a youth advocate: “It’s possible that even if my students touch just one youth, they may help them re-direct their path from the criminal justice system.”



Counseling students gain ‘life-changing’ perspectives during mission trips to Guatemala

NIU’s January 2016 contingent of volunteers in Guatemala.

NIU’s January 2016 contingent of volunteers in Guatemala.

Many service-minded NIU students will spend next week’s Spring Break on the road, volunteering their time and labor to improve the lives of people in faraway places.

But that sort of humanitarianism is not constricted to one week of the year.

Just ask Scott Wickman, as associate professor in the NIU Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education.

A few years ago, one of his long-ago high school Spanish pupils invited him to travel with her to Guatemala for a mission trip.

Wickman volunteered there under the auspices of Catalyst Resources International, an organization that coordinates teams from around the world to build houses, stoves, water filtration systems, plumbing and other amenities for rural families living in abject poverty among the mountains.

Coming home, he found himself transformed.

“Once you see and meet these children, you’ll never forget about it – and you’ll tell others,” Wickman says. “I was talking about it to a class, and I said, ‘I’m going back.’ And a student asked, ‘Can we go with you?’ That’s how it happens. It’s a ripple effect.”

Scott Wickman at work.

Scott Wickman at work.

He is scheduled to accompany a group of around 10 students to Guatemala during the week of May 20, once again paying forward the gift of sorts he received from his former student.

It’s the second such trip, managed through Huskie Alternative Breaks, during which travelers receive life lessons along with academic learning.

“Our primary purpose is to explore social justice through service learning,” Wickman says. “Last year, we made a hen house the size of a garage, and we purchased 20 chickens for them. That family is now selling the eggs as a way to sustain themselves. We’ve provided a means for a higher quality of living.”

Local Guatemalan carpenters supervise the sawing of boards and pounding of nails, he says. Wickman and the students live in a well-protected residence hall facility, which employs Guatemalans to clean the rooms and make the beds.

Evening hours allow for trips to a nearby orphanage, where the counselors-in-training engage children in adventured-based activities. They also chat with mental health professionals about what counseling looks like in Guatemala as well as what mental health services are available.

They meet children who are bright but not in school; free education stops around fifth- or sixth-grade, Wickman says, forcing many young people to drop out. That often results in adolescent pregnancies while ultimately continuing the cycle of poverty.

Such interactions are eye-opening for NIU students, Wickman says, but so are the heartwarming encounters that reveal “the amount of sharing that takes place” between the villagers.

One hen house, coming up ...

One hen house, coming up …

“There was one day when we had planned a picnic lunch, but on our way we decided to eat at a restaurant instead,” he says. “Our driver saw a local Mayan family walking along the road, so he pulled over and gave them our picnic lunches. He gave cookies to the kids.”

For one of Wickman’s students, that benevolent spirit proved contagious. After meeting a young teen girl who had quit school for financial reasons, the NIU Huskie telephoned her parents and convinced them to pay for the little girl’s secondary education.

His students also see the NIU program’s principles of advocacy, altruism, diversity and social justice reinforced while they gain deeper levels of empathy and new perspectives on counseling.

Most counseling in the United States is practiced behind closed doors during private one-on-one sessions where details are kept confidential, he says. However, given the familial customs in Guatemala, a counselor there might find extended families coming for the sessions.

“This trip helps my students understand how to work with different cultures,” he says. “When we have clients who are Latino, we need to reset ourselves in a way that meets our clients’ needs.”

T.J. Schoonover, a master’s degree student from Sterling, Ill., who participated in first trip in January of 2016, calls it “100 percent life-changing.”

T.J. Schoonover (top center) made some young friends in Guatemala.

T.J. Schoonover (top center) made some young friends in Guatemala.

He remains struck by the reaction by the family who received the hen house – “how happy and grateful they were; their tears of joy” – as well the appreciation he realized for his own way of life in contrast to the extreme poverty there.

“Going to Guatemala was a great opportunity to go and so some service work, to get out of our comfort zone and to challenge ourselves,” Schoonover says. “Seeing how it is outside of America, I know I need to get out and do things in the community, and not just in my community but in other communities.”

Volunteering also improved his multicultural competencies, he says. “It’s more than just reading a textbook,” he says. “It’s talking to people in the community. It’s doing things. It’s putting your skills to practical use.”

In the end, he says, the journey to Central America will make him a better counselor.

“It gave me a whole new worldview,” he says. “I’m reminded that whatever clients I will have, they have completely different stories and backgrounds than me.”

Now that word of the Guatemala trip has spread – registration for this spring is already closed – Wickman has found renewed empowerment in the response of his students.

“Students who go on these trips are interested in being altruistic. They’re willing to get dirty – it is hard labor under hot sun – and they’re willing to be uncomfortable. It’s partly why they went into the counseling program to being with,” he says. “I’m hoping that the ripple effect continues, and that these students who go down there will want to go back again with their own families.”

Scott Wickman visits with Guatemalan children.

Scott Wickman visits with Guatemalan children.



Z Nicolazzo: Schools need more than just policies on bullying

Z Nicolazzo

Z Nicolazzo

For K-12 educators who attended NIU’s Oct. 26 professional development conference on “Bullying: How Schools Can Respond,” a quotation presented by keynote speakers Z Nicolazzo and Molly Holmes painted a difficult picture.

“The dominant narrative (of LGBTQ bullying) depends on an inaccurate premise,” Nicolazzo said, reading from a 2013 study by researchers Elizabethe Payne and Melissa Smith.

“It assumes schools to be neutral sites where all students have an equal opportunity to succeed and that barriers to success appear when individuals’ injurious behavior or attitudes create a ‘negative’ school climate where student safety and belonging are threatened.”

What’s more, the presenters said, the increasing visibility of trans* people in the United States is matched by a growing vulnerability, risk of harm and threat of harassment.

LGBTQ students are experiencing educational environments that are less than ideal. They continue to face a lack of acceptance. Their lives are not reflected or affirmed through school curricula – and they are aware of that deficit.

One recent study found that 22 percent of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from other students often or very often; 25.5 percent of students heard school staff make negative remarks related to gender expression.

“School officials condone this cruel dynamic through inaction,” according to the 2001 “Hatred in the Hallways” report from the Human Rights Watch, “or in some cases because they, too, judge gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth to be underserving of respect.”

ask-my-pronounsDespite all this, said Nicolazzo, who uses the pronouns of ze and hir, America’s “gender expansive youth are resilient. They continue to live they lives they want to.”

For example, ze said, the number of people younger than 18 who are identifying as gender-expansive is three to six times greater than the number of adults doing so. Meanwhile, gender-expansive youth are connecting online for kinship as well as exploration of gendered possibilities.

Encouragement is also available in the “trickle up” philosophy: If schools focus on their most vulnerable populations, the positive effects should “trickle up” and potentially impact all students.

Co-sponsored by the College of Education Office of External & Global Programs, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences External Programming and the University Center of Lake County, the conference covered a variety of topics on bullying.

Nicolazzo, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, and Holmes, director of NIU’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, spoke on “Expanding Our Approach to Gender-Based Bullying.”

Among their key messages was the necessity of “enumerated” non-discrimination policies at schools – policies that outline not only the rules of conduct and the penalties for violating them but also statements of values.

Molly Holmes

Molly Holmes

Students who attend schools with enumerated non-discrimination policies report that they hear fewer homophobic and racist remarks than those in schools with no – or generic – policies. They also are less likely to perceive bullying as a problem at their schools or to feel unsafe.

But Nicolazzo and Holmes made clear that schools that are striving to create effective places for learning must update their policies at least every two years and actively enforce them.

Otherwise, Nicolazzo said, the policies are merely “caution tape.” They tell people what not to do, ze said, but they don’t really stop people from doing what they purport to prohibit.

“Pinkwashing” creates another problem, ze added, when schools and other organizations market policies of gender-inclusiveness but fail to carry them out.

The duo provided several other critical ideas for conference participants to ponder.

  • Educators must be diligent in the ongoing work of unlearning gender, specifically the how gender binary discourse structures school environments.
  • Educators need to remember LGBTQ students have agency to name their own lives, experiences and identities.
  • Educators need to seek and amplify counter-stories to LGBTQ deficit-based rhetoric and illogic.
  • Educators should infuse notions of gender throughout their curriculum.

“If we stop at having a policy,” Nicolazzo said, “we aren’t going to change.”



CAHE launches graduate certificate in trauma counseling

Working counselors can complete NIU’s online coursework in one year.

Working counselors can complete NIU’s online coursework in one year.

Not everyone who enters the counseling profession has been prepared to deal with clients who have experienced trauma.

Yet every counselor – including those who work in schools, helping students to facilitate positive change and advancement in their personal development and interactions – will encounter exactly that.

“Trauma is this concept of things that impact one’s life, usually from an external force, such as a murder or suicide, a terminal diagnosis for a child, domestic violence or a natural disaster,” says Adam Carter, assistant professor in the NIU College of Education’s Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education.

“It can leave an individual feeling ungrounded. Counselors see people who completely shut down, who turn inward and do not want to talk about it,” Carter adds. “We see people who are constantly processing it, or who can’t sleep at night, which makes daily functioning very difficult.”

Graduates of counseling programs who want that critical knowledge, along with an additional credential, can find it through NIU’s new Graduate Certificate in Trauma-Informed Counseling.

Designed to prepare or enhance master’s- or doctoral-level clinicians in various agency and treatment contexts, the courses focus on understanding elements of traumatic exposure, common threads of treatments and outcomes, trauma-sensitive care, crisis intervention and more.

All courses are offered completely online and, beginning in the fall semester of 2017, students can complete the certificate in one year. The classes are asynchronous.

Adam Carter

Adam Carter

“We wanted to make it accessible,” Carter says. “The week’s activities go online Monday, and students have the entire week to learn the module. There are videos of me going over the information, multimedia presentations, traditional readings and project-based learning.”

Curriculum includes theory-based and best practice-based strategies that counselors can apply immediately in their work.

Meanwhile, students will learn to spot signs of complex trauma that might not appear evident on the surface, such as from clients who live in neighborhoods with high crime rates, bad schools and few job opportunities.

Students also are required to complete work in groups, he adds: “Trauma work is done collaboratively,” he says. “Trauma work is group work.”

For example, students are assigned a crisis-based simulation; each must tackle a different aspect of the counseling response, weighing the importance of their segment against the importance of the others. Students eventually must write a collaborative report and submit it to Carter, who in the simulation acts as the crisis manager.

A handful of current NIU graduate students and five or six students-at-large already are taking some of the coursework, Carter says, as they train to become more well-rounded counselors.

“Professional counselors are dealing with people who are at the most vulnerable parts of their lives, and we’re asking them to trust us,” says Carter, who specializes in play therapy. “We need to know what to do with that trust.”

For more information on the certificate, email adamcarter@niu.edu. For information on applying, email CAHC_Admissions@niu.edu.



How to save a life

NIU receives grant to prevent suicides through awareness

mental-health-chalkA $300,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will work to decrease stigma around mental health and promote resilience in the NIU community.

NIU’s three-year grant, awarded to collaborators from the NIU College of Education’s Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education (CAHE) and NIU Counseling & Consultation Services, will fund various training programs and an awareness campaign.

“Like every other campus across the country, we’re seeing more and more students presenting with mental health issues than we have in the past,” said Brooke Ruxton, executive director of Counseling & Consultation Services and a licensed clinical psychologist, “and we’re doing something about that.”

Called “B-Safer” – an acronym for “Building Suicide Awareness and Fostering Enhanced Resilience” – the initiative officially begins Sept. 30. The B-Safer team also includes Suzanne Degges-White and Carrie Kortegast, chair and assistant professor in CAHE respectively.

Workshops will include “gatekeeper” training for faculty and staff, who will learn how to identify at-risk students and how to respond when they do.

The B-Safer program also will offer awareness training for peer leaders from student organizations on how to recognize signs of trouble in their friends and classmates.

Suzanne Degges-White, Carrie Kortegast and Brooke Ruxton

Suzanne Degges-White, Carrie Kortegast and Brooke Ruxton

Both scenarios will take into consideration NIU’s diversity; some populations on campus are culturally resistant to seeking out help for mental health issues, Ruxton said.

Participants also will learn from Kognito, an online program that, according to its website, “simulates the interactions and behaviors of practicing health professionals, patients, caregivers, students and educators in real-life situations” through “conversation simulations featuring virtual humans to drive measurable change in physical, emotional and social health.”

Kortegast hopes her colleagues across campus will participate – and find empowerment.

“Faculty are some of the people who are seeing students on an ongoing, regular basis. Sometimes there is a reluctance on the part of faculty to inquire with students on how they’re doing,” Kortegast said. “We can do this in a way of a community of care rather than, ‘It’s not my business. It’s not my concern. There are others who will intervene.’ ”

Such awareness “builds a community of care in which faculty and staff feel it’s OK to reach out to students and resources on campus, that it’s OK to talk about issues of mental health,” Ruxton added. “We’re creating a culture that this is something we’re doing with student organizations, this is something we’re talking about, that we’re watching out for our friends.”

Degges-White, Kortegast and Ruxton already have assembled a Mental Health Task Force made up of NIU faculty and staff as well as a representative from the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board.

“A big piece is connecting with the community,” Degges-White said. “We need to have community buy-in.”