When we first set out to interview trusted collaborators for the Windhorse Counseling blog, Carrie Hamblin, a school counselor at Lexington High School, was at the top of our list. Carrie exudes empathy and joy with a consummate knack for connecting with students. Her value-based approach to counseling is one that ardently sees students as humans first and foremost, holding space for them to explore their mental health in a safe, welcoming environment.
Alannah previously worked alongside Carrie at Lexington High School before founding the Windhorse Counseling team. Today, Alannah and Carrie collaborate to give students a comprehensive care team, working together to ensure students in need of outpatient care receive synergetic counseling that meets their immediate needs.
Alannah and Carrie recently chatted about Carrie’s path to counseling, the collaborative process between school counselors and clinicians, and more. Take a look below!
ALANNAH: How did you get into this field? What was your path like?
CARRIE: I had no intention of studying psychology or counseling. I was an English major and I wanted to be a writer. I had an undergrad professor that told me, “You're a decent writer, but you should probably write for Hallmark because it's a little on the cheesy side.”
I struggled with that direct feedback at age 19. While that felt like a blow, I also thought, “Wait, there's probably a good career in that! Hallmark is a pretty reputable company and surely they make pretty good profits.”
I ultimately ended up going to Australia at the end of college, took a course in psychology, and fell in love with it. I knew I needed to merge the two paths and decided to change my major. I wanted to explore either counseling or psychology, but I didn’t know what that could look like.
My mom was a teacher and then my sister went into special education - I knew that I wanted my path to look a little bit different than teaching while holding some of those values around accessing education. Following that first psychology course in Australia and the death of my father, I knew I wanted to do something clinical in the field. I wanted to do something that was in the helping profession. School counseling became a natural and practical choice for me.
ALANNAH: When do you opt to refer a student to an outpatient provider?
CARRIE: In 2022, I would say there was a point where we were hesitant to even try due to the lack of availability of providers. During the early height of COVID, there was probably still some availability. 2021 got increasingly tougher.
We see kids regularly and if they need further clinical support that cannot be done in school, we opt to work with an outpatient provider. While mental health is always relevant in the school setting, some things, such as specific work with substance abuse or eating disorders, are beyond my purview as a school counselor.
As school counselors, we’re asking how mental health is impacting a student’s learning. Sometimes I forget that piece as I'm not as focused on the grades and the academic achievement of a student because that has never been my single lens. But, mental health greatly impacts a student's ability to access learning. When it’s clear that a kid needs space to unpack more clinically heavy topics, I would refer them to outside counseling.
Additionally, our school has social workers as well that serve as a second tier of support for students.
ALANNAH: Do you work with anyone beyond outpatient counselors or social workers?
CARRIE: I'm accessing pediatricians more than I ever have and I've worked with some awesome pediatricians over the past three years. Overall, it seems like pediatricians and their staff are fielding a lot more mental health cases than ever before.
Pediatricians and primary care doctors are the keys to the kingdom in a lot of ways. Great referrals to dieticians and specialists are essential. Blood work can be so telling and inform our work as well.
ALANNAH: What do you look for in clinicians you collaborate with?
CARRIE: What I look for in a clinician is someone that has a lens that's not so strictly academic, which is why I love working with Windhorse counselors. To some extent, you have to incorporate that lens as it would be a disservice to kids if you didn't have that perspective. I think clinicians need to be well-versed in our demographic, relevant cultural factors, and our community’s value system to get a full picture of a student. What I need out of clinicians is the ability to see the whole kid rather than just pathologizing. A strength-based approach.
ALANNAH: Can you give an example?
CARRIE: There’s a student I have referred to Alannah and who she is doing incredible work with. This student has a complicated profile and is working through identity topics and issues around eating and the complicated relationship to food intake and restriction.
What I love about working with you and similar clinicians is that you are so skilled in not strictly pathologizing any of this student’s issues and making symptoms out to be bigger than they are. In many ways, certain symptoms, such as having challenging relationships with food or self-harm, can be a consequence of trying to figure out identity. I am working to be really intentional about this shift to not pathologizing sad moods, crying, emoting, or dark thoughts. These things are and can be a normal part of development and identity formation. If we are always pathologizing students’ symptoms, the end result can be re-traumatizing.
In a recent workshop, I heard the phrase “holding risk.” This deeply resonated with me, particularly in this era of a continual shortage of mental health providers. I feel like we’re shifting towards getting more comfortable with holding risk when it’s appropriate. Rather than immediately sending kids to the ER when their safety is in question, we’re collaborating with counselors, social workers, clinicians, Pediatricians and community providers first to assess risk and safety. The ER is sometimes crucial and inevitable, but it can also be a traumatizing experience, so assessing risk in a more comfortable environment is often preferable.
ALANNAH: I am always so appreciative when we have a school counselor like you on the other end who's willing to put a dogmatic approach aside and put the individual at the forefront.
CARRIE: Right. For some kids, school is their stability. And it’s important to be able to get on the phone with someone who understands that and use that as part of treatment planning.
ALANNAH: Can you tell us a little bit about what a school like Lexington High School is doing to prioritize mental health?
CARRIE: A lot of educators are taking a gentler perspective and we’re keeping mental health and social-emotional learning as part of the fabric of academic achievement.
Lexington High School is one of the highest-achieving schools in the nation. But, we opt to put the person first, before the student and learner.
For example, I recently sent out an email to our teachers letting them know a student is struggling and asking them to give them a little grace during this time. A really great science teacher responded by saying “I always put the human first before the student.” And I love that.
There are other areas we are still working on. For instance, we're trying really hard to put a credit cap on how many courses a student can take. This is the first year that I've been here that incoming ninth graders can only take a certain amount of classes. What that means is they have to have study halls and they have to have some downtime during the day. They can’t have such a jam-packed schedule.
For Mental Health Awareness Month, instead of scheduling mental health-specific workshops, Social Workers are inviting students to choose to do a nature walk, crafting, and a bunch of other enrichment activities that boost mental health without pathologizing the natural rollercoaster of adolescence.
Beyond that, we try to reach out and find the strengths and interests of each student, particularly if they are struggling. We can kind of work behind the scenes to create stability and structure and unconditional positive regard for kids who may be struggling. We make sure every kid is regarded in the community as someone of worth and of merit.
ALANNAH: How do you collaborate with parents?
CARRIE: We have a pretty high parental involvement. We’re doing more and more work with parents and caregivers to share perspectives. There’s a lot of pressure around college admissions and it’s important to walk them through that process.
Our school is so academically rigorous and many of our students are very high achieving. We can’t ignore that the college admissions process is often forefront for families and we can’t try to push an agenda that parents don’t respond to. It’s a difficult balance.
ALANNAH: That said, I see you do such a nice job of holding hands with parents and gently walking them toward the water of outpatient therapy. You’re able to communicate that this collaboration will be so worthwhile.
CARRIE: Often there is work to be done around helping families to see that outpatient counseling is equally as important as SAT tutoring or private college counseling. But that, again, is my own lens and I’m biased toward prioritizing mental health above all else. I genuinely believe that if mental health is strong, the learning and academic achievement will come - but it is secondary to being mentally and emotionally fit. I honestly couldn’t do this work in a vacuum; having incredible colleagues and working with outstanding outpatient providers such as yourselves at Windhorse ensure that students are supported holistically. I’m so grateful for this thoughtful collaboration and partnership.