Make It Better — Now

Rosemary Doyle, School Counselor at Northwood School in Washburn County, knows what it takes to make a difference in the day-to-day lives of LGBT youth.

I have always been an impatient sort, and never one to wait for dessert or delay speaking up. I love that part of Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on the Wire” when the lady standing in the door says, “Why not, why not ask for more?” So I guess it comes as no surprise that I want LGBTQ kids not to have to wait either.

I have been a school counselor for 24 years. I also teach community and school counselors at UW-Superior. I live “in the middle of nowhere” in northern Wisconsin where there isn’t a stoplight for 35 miles. I live in beautiful surroundings with no noise, but no diversity, either. There is not enough acceptance for change, and our mental health services are pretty nonexistent, too. I moved up here 30 years ago from Chicago because I was sure it would be better than big-city living. It has been for me—a white, educated, straight, married woman with children. And I am married to a straight white male, at that.

A few eyebrows raised because I kept the name I was born with and I “spout that feminist stuff,” but overall I have a great life. I am also the sister of one straight sister, two straight brothers, and one gay brother. However, we just think of each other by our names and personalities, not our sexuality. We all watched our father struggle with his gay son. At the bottom of it all was shame, and it seeped into my brother’s soul. So it comes as no surprise that as his sister, I consider myself an ally. I also consider myself a good counselor and therapist.

I had to make a choice about 13 years ago about which two of my three jobs I would keep. I loved being a therapist, but my specialty was sexually abused children and I was getting pretty burned out. So I decided to stay on as an instructor in the graduate counseling program at UW-Superior and move into a full-time position as a school counselor. The access to a school counselor in Wisconsin is free and open to any public school student. Kids didn’t need a “ticket” like in the more restricted mental health world, nor a diagnosis.

I love stories, so here is one to ponder. Last October, a mother called and told me her son wasn’t coming to school anymore and if he was forced to, he would kill himself. The problem he identified was bullying. Two weeks later, our principal talked to me about a parent who said their son would be home schooled if the bullying didn’t stop. The basis of the bullying in both cases was perceived “gayness.” So here are two middle school kids—at the developmental stage of life when identity issues, self-awareness, and “here and now” thinking are reaching their peak—not being able to imagine coming to school anymore. In my opinion, the most important thought I needed to instill in these boys was a sense that change in their circumstances was possible. The bottom line for depressed, suicidal, and hopeless people is to help them acquire a sense of power over circumstances—that they can learn through counseling, life changes, medication, inspirational role models, or a combination of all of those—to make a choice to stay in the game.

So, like so many others, I really like the “It Gets Better” campaign. But when I talk to kids I know that they feel their pain right now and as one of the boys in my story very matter-of-factly said, “I can’t do this for six more years.” As a mental health professional, it borders on malpractice to give false assurances to suicidal people to “hang in there, it will get better.” It really usually does get better, as this magazine’s readers know. But to a minority of kids, especially living in very non-supportive homes and communities, the message falls on ears without the life experience to know that most people do get through their dark nights of the soul and choose to live.

The great news in this story is that there was an organization that came to one of the most rural and poverty-stricken parts of the state and brought hope and, most importantly, skills to kids and their adult allies. Gifted presenter Brian Juchems of the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools (GSAFE) came to our area and presented a workshop that taught us the skills we needed. The two boys I mentioned as well as other kids who were concerned about their friends came together with Brian and learned how to make a difference. They courageously wrote a skit that educated others in middle school about what LGBTQ kids go through and why bullying needs to stop and it made a real difference in our school.

The barriers to doing this everywhere in Wisconsin are typical: lack of resources and a big lack of courage on the part of school officials. The Department of Public Instruction has made it possible for lots of us to access funds to get to these trainings, and they deserve a huge thank you from us all.

Here’s the bad news: We need trained, supportive advocates in every school in Wisconsin to work with our kids at risk now—to make it better now. The sad news is we have those very well-trained people in our schools but we have them scheduling classes, supervising study halls and lunch hours, giving caseloads of 400–1000 students to each counselor. Just by mandating and funding a school counselor to student ratio of 250:1 across this state, we can have the trained professionals working to make it better every day.

I train counselors, and they each graduate with a Master’s Degree from accredited universities with stringent courses of study. They know what to do and how to do it but they are chronically overworked and set up for failure by our school funding problems.  When my students and I were chosen to receive a Best Practice award by GSAFE, my ratio was 250:1, the one recommended by the state and national standards. Next year my ratio will be 385:1.