Cantwell sparks conversation about mental health in schools

Lucia Gabel, Editor-in-Chief

As a teenager, mental health counselor Lora Cantwell was exposed to the reality of first hand foster care experiences. Through the addition of a foster brother to her family, Cantwell was inspired to study social work and understand more about mental health. Her personal experiences carried over into her work and provided her with a more understanding approach as she navigated different jobs. 

“Having that personal connection to what that experience could be like for [my brother], but also for my family really [impacts me]. Just being a part of it, that foster care system and seeing the impact of trauma [makes me] have this professional lens, but I also have a personal lens. I think meshing those two things together can enhance [my work],” Cantwell said. 

Not only has it expanded her situations later in life at work, but it also created a new perspective of life for Cantwell in her teenage years. 

“[Gaining a foster brother] was one of my first exposures to different ways that people live. Being honest, [I had] a pretty easy life, [and] I wasn’t aware of some of the other people’s struggles, so it definitely opened my eyes up to some of the hardships in the world,” Cantwell said. 

After two years of foster care social work and ten years in community mental health, Cantwell has brought pieces from each job to her current work at HHS. 

“I always say [social work] was one of my hardest jobs, but I learned a lot from that experience, just about different life struggles and different paths that people take and the support that is available,” Cantwell said. 

Moving from social work to family outpatient therapy, Cantwell tries to find the best of both worlds.

“Community mental health was great because I got to work with families and I really appreciated learning more about the family system. I [was] doing intensive in-home work, but as a traditional outpatient therapist. My goal here at the school is to really bring [the] structure and privacy that comes with outpatient therapy [but] bring it into the school setting where it’s easy to access and available [to] students,” Cantwell said. 

The transition to working in a high school environment has made Cantwell think more about what students need and want to hear. She has realized that students often prefer someone who will listen over someone who needs to make changes. 

“[We want to find] ways for students to feel safe and supported and to know that mental health is something that can be talked about here. That yes, being a student is important in this building, but we really see students as whole people,” Cantwell said. “They just want someone to walk with them or to sit with them or be with them to hear what they have to say. I don’t always have to feel this pressure to fix.”

Putting her findings into action, Cantwell has worked on how she communicates with students and continues to find what works best for each person. 

“One of the things I’ve learned the most from [the students is that] we all just need a safe space and sometimes just to be heard. I think I’ve definitely shifted from a therapeutic approach to just being present and listening and acknowledging how hard things are sometimes and not jumping to that, ‘Now let’s find a solution for it.’,” Cantwell said. 

This different approach can lead to a more relaxed and open environment which is what Cantwell strives for. She pays credit to the students that surround her every day. 

“I love how smart you guys are. I think sometimes emotions can be really big and adults can lose sight of how much you guys have to offer,” Cantwell said. “I love just being able to get kids into a space where we can slow down and really explore different stuff.”

Cantwell finds that while students are her work, they are also her inspiration. After initially taking the job five years ago, she began referring to herself as a student assistant counselor for fear of how the term ‘mental health counselor’ would be taken. However, Cantwell soon realized that a ‘mental health counselor’ was not what students feared, but what they wanted.    

“Students would tell me ‘we don’t know what you are’. So we advocated for [mental health] in this department. You see that change now and I’m really proud of that,” Cantwell said. “And that came from student voices saying, ‘we don’t have that stigma [around mental health] that you think.’ Yes, stigma around mental health exists, don’t get me wrong. But, ‘we’re happy to have you here.’ That’s what I heard from the students.”

After her first four years of hearing from students and improving her work, Cantwell got to watch her first class that she helped through high school, graduate. 

“There was one particular young man. I met [him] at orientation, it was my first day here and also his first day. We kind of completed that cycle last year [when] I went and I watched him graduate. It just felt like a big, big accomplishment,” Cantwell said. 

Cantwell is rewarded by the impact that she can make over a student’s years of high school. 

“I love the opportunity to be in this part of your lives. It’s such a huge part of development, when you’re learning things and developing your own identity and to have mental health be a part of that, where we can normalize it and [know that] it’s okay to struggle sometimes, I think it’s just amazing,” Cantwell said.

 As she continues to grow and learn, Cantwell keeps one goal in mind. Remembering the reason that she began working with people in the first place.

“I want people to feel cared for. I think if I can show up every day and at least let people know that they’re not alone and that we do care and that we are a village and a community here, that’s huge,” Cantwell said. “I just hope that students can have that space and know that we can do hard things together.”