Written by Caitlyn Raymond
In a Las Vegas middle school and high school called Faith Lutheran, is an incredible woman named Courtney Burns. As a published author, licensed counselor, former corrections officer, dog lover, and mother, she shows her love, compassion and faith every single day through her words and actions. She published her first book in the middle of the pandemic titled “The Comfort Dog Gave Me Pink Eye: Lessons From the Book of Esther”. For those of you who don’t know, Ester is a fantastic book in the Bible that highlights strength, humility, courage, and victory. Esther is also the name of the golden doodle, adopted by Courtney to bring love and comfort to the community she is so passionate about during such a time of darkness. She is dedicated to building a support animal program specific to Faith Lutheran and guide other schools in creating their own programs. After reading, and loving, her book, I sat in my room with a million questions in my head regarding mental health, self help strategies, the comfort animal program, and knew I needed to pick Courtney’s brain. She truly is a very wise, compassionate, and ambitious woman and someone I am honored to have sat down and chatted with.
Running a mental health program in a school in a pandemic was definitely a learning experience. I am grateful for the team that I'm a part of here at Faith and how we all survived that. And I think it's really now just kind of looking ahead to how we help everybody continue to recover, kids and adults alike, from that experience…
Caitlyn: How long have you been a counselor?
Courtney Burns: I have been a school counselor for eleven years. I was a teacher before that, but I also have worked as a rape crisis counselor, as a domestic violence counselor, and as a juvenile corrections officer, oddly enough.
Caitlyn: So diving right into it; You wrote a book and you published it in the middle of COVID!
Courtney Burns: Yes, the year that I published my journal… It’s so funny, the evolution of that, because we started the Comfort Dog program here at Faith following 1 October. As that kind of took off, I was getting really inundated with different school officials from across the country, wanting to know what we did and how we did it and give them advice and give them structure. And so the book really started as a way to outline how to do the program… But as I got going on it, I just kind of felt like, first of all, Esther is such a part of the story here at Faith, and the story of that year following 1 October was so hard. We faced so much loss here as a community that year. We had faculty lose children, we lost students. It was really just every month something really traumatic was happening. And that's Esther's story, and that's our story, and I wanted to tell it. And then also, Esther is named for Esther in the Bible. That chapter has always had my heart. I think there are so many lessons in it that are so applicable to being a healthy individual and being strong and understanding that it's okay to be really afraid when you're strong. And so the book kind of morphed into how to have a therapy dog. Also here's our story. Also here is a Bible study on the book of Esther, and somehow it fit together.
So much of it is not my story to tell, but it's part of our fabric here. And so that was kind of a hard thing to navigate because when you're caring for other people and when you're working in mental health and when you're even just trying to be a really good friend of someone going through a hard time, we take on secondary trauma. We take on it's called ‘second responder’. It is hard, and it's hard to navigate. And so I think that we need to be able to say that while also acknowledging that, I am not the first person trauma here. That was an interesting line to try to walk in the book of it's okay for us to feel overwhelmed and sad and maybe a little burned out and maybe really, really uncertain while we're loving people through hard stuff, and we can do that and live in that space while still acknowledging this isn't my story.
Caitlyn: I had a lot of friends come to me while I was in high school and they almost were treating me like a counselor or like a therapist. That's a lot for one person to take on, and I didn't want to feel selfish. I didn't want to be a bad friend. But it's a lot. And so how would you, from the other perspective, draw the line between friend and therapist or friend and counselor?
Courtney Burns: Well, I think that there's a couple of different parts to it. One, what a counselor or a therapist does is so different than what a friend does. Part of being a good friend and being a good caretaker is being able to say to someone, ‘I'm going to love you, and I'm going to sit with you, but we have to figure out who you can talk to that's going to help you unravel this, because I don't know how to do that and I'm not being helpful. Let's figure out the professional help for it.’ And that's good, and that's a good boundary. I think that we have to be aware on the front side when we're being taken emotionally hostage. If you are in a place where you are starting to feel like this person is not okay without you, that is not a healthy place for either of you to be in. And if you are starting to feel like, ‘I missed a middle of the night text. I'm worried about safety.’ That is a huge red flag that professionals need to be involved. I am a firm believer that clear is kind and that we have to say when we're overwhelmed and we have to say when someone is putting too much on us, because otherwise we end up resentful, and that ruins a relationship anyway.
Caitlyn: At the end of chapter 19 was a list of six things that you ask yourself to kind of calm yourself down from an anxious state and get a clearer mind… To really think about the underlying emotions and things that are happening when you're not in a good place.
What are the emotions that I'm currently feeling? List them all, big or small.
Is there a theme to these emotions? And if not, what do I feel the most?
Is it possible to summarize the problems of these feelings are surrounding?
Is the problem true? Does it actually exist? And if it does, let's create an action plan. If it doesn't, what is the truth?
What emotions are driving the actual truth?
How do I get a handle on these emotions?
How does one get out of that very beginning headspace to just start asking those questions?
Courtney Burns: Anxiety is a liar. Anxiety tells you something terrible is coming, but it's going to be a surprise. So we better believe that we should run through all those scenarios. If we can say there's really nothing wrong, then now I just have anxiety and I have to have a toolbox of how I burn it off and how I handle it. But if I have a problem that I'm not addressing and I'm pushing down and I'm repressing, then that's going to start to manifest in all the areas of my life. And so let's figure out what it is I try to practice. Let's go through my life then. How are things at home? How are things with my friends? How are things at work? How are things spiritually for me? How are things physically for me? If I can go through those areas and say things are fine, I'm having anxiety, there's nothing wrong. And the truth is I'm unsettled and I better just get busy.
We don't think and we don't label emotions correctly. There's a difference between humiliated and embarrassed. There’s a difference between jealousy and envy. It's a motivational difference. It's a deep thought process difference. And so the more we can learn about what an emotion actually is and what's driving it, the less we're controlled by it.
Caitlyn: So in the past year or two, what's some of the most common issues that students have come with?
Courtney Burns: I think that what happened with lockdown and what happened with distancing, it just exacerbated everything. People who had maybe minor substance abuse issues really blossomed into full blown substance abuse issues often, and that creates a trickle down effect. Kids who struggled with some social anxiety then didn't have to do it, got a break. The problem with that is, now we have rebound anxiety. ‘I wasn't facing my fear every day, and so now my fear is a monster, and I have to try to get back on top of it…’
8th to 9th grade is a really horrible, hard transition. ‘Now, my friends are becoming people that I share interests with’. If you're a kid that's struggling to figure out what you're interested in or what your identity is or who you want to be, that can be hard to find a tribe. If your old group is moving on without you, that's really awful. It kind of grows from there and until it's a really independent, more adult friendship. What the pandemic did was it pushed everyone back down into that elementary way of my friends are people who my parents are comfortable with. ‘I can be friends with families who are doing the pandemic in the same way that I am’. As a 13 year old girl, what I would feel is ‘I had five friends. Three of them are still friends. The other one found a new group, and I don't have anybody’… Trying to rebuild community has been really difficult.
Caitlyn: What kind of advice do you give somebody who's really struggling to find something they enjoy or to fit in or to be what they call popular or to find their friend group?
Courtney Burns: It is hard to see only the best 4 seconds of everyone's life and then believe that that's how they live. That is really hard to wrap your head around and so helping with that perspective is a part of it… Ages eleven to 24 is the identity development stage and we don't spend enough time as the adults telling kids you are not supposed to have this figured out. Like you have a solid ten year journey ahead of you. And guess what? It is really awkward. That's why everyone hates middle school because it is really awkward and it's uncomfortable and it's hard to figure out. And I think that there are ways to try on identities. I'm going to be this kid or I'm going to be interested in this or I'm going to try to find this group and that is super, super normal. That's a part of growing up, right? Thank God we all don't stay who we are when we're twelve.
But there's been this weird pop psychology push about being your authentic self and I think it's created this feeling of ‘if I change my mind then I'm fake’. I really just want kids to hear, no, that's not fake, it's normal. You're going to grow and you're going to evolve and it's going to be different and it's okay. Play basketball this year and be a drama kid next year and 200 acquaintances that you can casually sit and have lunch with that maybe don't text you all night are going to be far healthier for you than that one best friend that's smothering you. Even though you think that's what you want, it's okay.
Caitlyn: Can you tell me a little bit about Esther's impact? The one that inspired your book and is sitting right next to me, a little golden doodle?
Courtney Burns: She’s so funny. Esther has been a lot of fun. She's been a bridge in a way that I didn't expect. I run her social media @EstherBeanComfortQueen, and she's hilarious on there… I took her on a mission trip with me, and she's just the kind of ultimate icebreaker. We can put a group of kids in a room, and we can all agree we should pet the dog, and we'll start there. She's a conversation starter, and she brings in kids who need to come in for counseling, who would never manage it otherwise, because it's weird to be a 13 year old boy and want to talk about being sad, but it's okay to be a 13 year old boy who stopped by to pet the dog, and then it kind of came up.
Caitlyn: Going back to a bit of the self care that you mentioned in your book… do you believe that the stuff that we see on Instagram in terms of self care care… are those just a facade or do they actually help psychologically, or is there something else that we should be practicing?
Courtney Burns: I feel like the phrase ‘self care’ became just a really big tool for gas lighting people, that if you feel bad and you're failing to self care, man, you should be better… I think we've blurred the lines between self help and self care. And ‘self help’ being ‘what am I doing to improve myself?’ They can be similar practices. Self care being ‘I recognize that I'm tapped out’. ‘How do I feel better?’ If we talk about meditation, I'm a big believer in that time if I'm going to do it to try to become a better calmer, non reactive person… self help. And that's something that should be on my daily checklist of something I'm doing for continual improvement. If I'm doing it because I can't get a handle on my heart rate in this moment and I know that I need to sit and be quiet because it's going to help me feel better, because I'm feeling a little broken, it's self care and it shouldn't be on a checklist.
Caitlyn: Going back to your middle school self, what advice would you give her?
Courtney Burns: So I was so ugly in middle school. I truly was traumatically unattractive in middle school, which I say only because I feel like sometimes it gives me some street cred when I roll out my middle school pictures… I remember walking home from school and having like, teenage boys yell ‘el paw’ at me like the dog food. It was a rough go. I'm five foot nine. I was this tall in 6th grade. I didn't learn how to carry it for a long time and it was hard. It was self esteem damaging. Then as I kind of grew into myself, I had to learn how to navigate suddenly maybe receiving some interest that I hadn't had before. What I would want to tell my middle school self as a middle aged woman is this is so good because your identity is never going to come down to what you look like… I would want to reassure that poor kid walking home afraid of those teenage boys. That doesn't matter. It's good resilience.
You can learn more about Courtney Burns and Esther the Comfort Dog by following their journey together on Instagram @EstherbeanComfortQueen and don’t forget to check out Courtney’s first book “The Comfort Dog Gave Me Pink Eye: Lessons From the Book of Esther” available for download and physical copy.
Photographed by Jill Heupel