By Jamie Lattin, Staff Writer
// Amid tests, college applications, and homework, it can be difficult for students to find a comfortable refuge to decompress during the school day. Student anxiety, depression, and academic stress have risen considerably at Acalanes, evident from data collected in the California Healthy Kids Survey over the past few years.
A group of parents began the Wellness Center before the 2018-19 school year as a safe space for students to receive support in response to this worrying information. The brand new center, open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., is found in the same building as the College and Career Center.
The main focus of the Wellness Center is to connect students with whatever they need, including counseling, support, or simply a quiet place to eat lunch.
“Most high schoolers have a lot of anxiety. I think that the Wellness Center is good because you might want to have a time where you can just sit,” junior Chloe Parmelee said.
The space is filled with coloring books, snacks, friendly faces, and potentially a zen garden that’s in the works. Tactile activities like friendship bracelets and coloring are meant to help students disconnect and decompress from their stress.
“I want it to be a place that feels welcoming. I don’t want it to be a place where people just feel like the only time people go in there is if they are in crisis or if they’re really depressed,” Wellness Coordinator Eryn Reeder said. “I want it to be a place where people come to build skills, to feel good, and to feel connected. I want it to be a positive place for folks to come and get the support that they need.”
The idea for the Wellness Center began with a local parent group involved in Challenge Success, a nationwide organization dedicated to improving the physical and mental health of students. The group noticed an upwards trend in student stress and began brainstorming ideas to combat it.
“It became clear that something had to be done to address rising levels of depression, anxiety, and disconnection,” Wellness Intake Specialist Casey Sasner said.
Data from the California Healthy Kids Survey showed a significant increase in chronic sadness and suicide ideation and a decline in connectedness from 2009 to 2017.
In brainstorming solutions, the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) put together a committee of administrators and counselors to visit other schools and see what methods they employ to fight stress.
In 2016, the committee visited Redwood High School in Marin to survey its Wellness Center.
“There was an intake person, and they sent you everywhere, to guidance counseling, to resources, to community people. The nurse was in there. It was all aspects of health in general,” Acalanes Counselor Susan Martin said.
The AUHSD decided to adopt a similar concept. In fall of 2017, a Wellness Center opened at Las Lomas, followed closely by Campolindo. Both Miramonte and Acalanes opened their centers this semester.
Each center partners with external organizations to provide services to students. So far, plans to bring in the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT), Planned Parenthood, and Rainbow Coalition have been established.
ADAPT is working to provide individuals with treatment and support if they are struggling with addiction.
Planned Parenthood provides students with services and information about birth control, abortion, and general reproductive health.
Rainbow Coalition is working to support students in the LGBTQ+ community who face harassment or feel unsafe.
“We are still really working on building connections with other community-based organizations as well. I think that will really come about as we gain a better understanding of what information is needed by the students, and what resources are needed,” Reeder said.
Although the Wellness Center and counseling department share some similarities, there are also major distinctions between them.
Prior to the opening of the center, the four counselors handled both students’ academic and emotional stress, along with schedules, conflict resolution, and other student struggles. This year, the two groups are attempting to divide up those responsibilities.
“I think the four academic counselors manage the nitty-gritty and the paperwork and all that stuff and I think we do okay, but the need here is in the emotional piece. The Wellness Center is trying to fill that need,” Martin said.
In addition, the Wellness staff wants to extend its attention beyond school.
“Our focus is not just on school or what’s happening in school or in your classes. It really is about the whole student, so what’s happening at home? What’s happening after school? What are the things that are bothering you? What are the things that you are interested in that you are not sure how to access?” Reeder said.
A central concepts counselors and the staff at the Wellness Center want students to grasp is that they don’t always have to feel good. The high academic standards of Acalanes, along with personal issues, cause stress for almost every student.
“This is a high expectation and a high-pressure society because kids are constantly comparing themselves to each other,” Martin said.
The Wellness Center hopes to provide students with whatever they need to navigate the often stressful high school experience. The entire staff hopes to normalize mental health issues and to break down the stigma surrounding them.
“You guys are launching into your adult world soon. I think that this is the time to really build the skills you’ll need to know in order to understand how to recognize stress,” Sasner said.