Meet our Mid-Valley: 'School Counselor of the Year' works on grief, suicide prevention

South Salem High School counselor Ryan Marshall in the school's calm room. Marshall has been named Oregon's School Counselor of the Year.
South Salem High School counselor Ryan Marshall in the school's calm room. Marshall has been named Oregon's School Counselor of the Year.

This is part of a weekly series introducing readers to individuals who are passionate about our Mid-Valley community.

Today's teens face a string of global crises, ever-pervasive technology and an increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, — all while still in high school.

South Salem High School counselor Ryan Marshall is on the front line of helping teens navigate that landscape. Since becoming a counselor at the school in 2014, Marshall said, he's worked with students on grief, suicide, abuse and inclusion.

The challenges have grown in recent years, he said. In a world of smartphones, social media and the internet, kids' attention is being pulled in different directions every day. They've grown up in a worldwide pandemic and are learning to become adults while balancing school, their families and extracurriculars.

But even with the weight of so much on their shoulders, the teens Marshall works with show remarkable strength, he said.

"I want to always provide space for not just the resilience of students, but their ability to withstand all those challenges we've talked about already and help their peers," he said.

Read more:Girls, LGBQ+ teens at higher risk for depression, CDC mental health report says

He sat in the calm room at South Salem High — an artfully decorated room with cafe lights and comfortable seating. The students helped come up with the idea and design the room, which gives teens a safe spot to decompress and relax for 15-20 minutes during their school day.

Since opening a year ago, about 2,000 students have utilized the space. Instead of going home with anxiety-induced stomach aches and headaches, many are able to spend time in the room and return to class.

Marshall said he's seen teens prevent suicides, respond to crises and mourn the deaths of classmates.

"We can talk about all the negativity; We can talk about everything that is not going right, and there's certainly a lot of that," Marshall said. "I just want to make sure that there's space to praise our students who are doing all that they're doing. Students are willing to do incredible things."

South Salem High School counselor Ryan Marshall says he's doing his dream job.  "I love that I get to hear stories every day and help students," he said.
South Salem High School counselor Ryan Marshall says he's doing his dream job. "I love that I get to hear stories every day and help students," he said.

Born and raised in the Salem area, Marshall graduated from Salem-Keizer Public Schools and returned to work as a counselor and raise his family in the region.

"I am the product of so many teachers and mentors and people in the Salem-Keizer area that spoke truth and value into my life," he said. "The opportunity to pay that back and to be even a fraction of that to students, it just felt like the right calling. I love that I get to hear stories every day and help students. I feel like I work my dream job."

Marshall's work won him the honor of being named the 2021 Oregon School Counselor of the Year and he's been nominated for the National School Counselor Association's counselor of the year award.

The need for more suicide prevention, crisis management and grief counseling led him to take a yearlong sabbatical.

Marshall said he wants to find new ways to help students and help his profession grow. After his sabbatical, he said, he wants to return to the sacred job of counseling better prepared to guide teens through the difficult times in their lives.

"School counselors are saving lives every day," he said. "They are willing to step into some really extreme situations and conversations. They rise to that occasion across our district, especially here at South. That work is incredibly important to the school, school district and the community."

"The fact that I get to be a part of that … it's unbeatable."

If you have an idea for someone we should profile for this series, please email Statesman Journal senior news editor Alia Beard Rau at arau@gannett.com

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodworth@statesmanjournal.com, call 503-910-6616 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Oregon School Counselor of Year: South Salem's Ryan Marshall