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A home-like center to address suicide in K12

Schools help students struggling with perfection and self-esteem issues
WELCOME RESPITE—Wellness centers at Gunn High School, left, and Palo Alto High School, right, are designed to stem the number of teenage suicides in the U.S. The centers work to teach students certain skills to help cope with stress and personal problems.
WELCOME RESPITE—Wellness centers at Gunn High School, left, and Palo Alto High School, right, are designed to stem the number of teenage suicides in the U.S. The centers work to teach students certain skills to help cope with stress and personal problems.

There’s a new tool in the battle against student depression, anxiety and suicide—the in-school wellness center.

Palos Verdes High School in California opened its on-campus wellness center in December 2016. “The idea is to create spaces that don’t look or feel like schools,” says Don Austin, superintendent of Palos Verdes Peninsula USD. “The physical space is calming and creates a safe and predictable environment for students.”

Despite the academic success in this affluent southern California community, students still struggle with perfection and self-esteem issues, he says.

“We are trying to teach our students that they can reduce anxiety by understanding that it is acceptable to not be great at everything right now,” he says. “We are making efforts to teach the power of ‘yet’ to our students. For example, ‘I am not good at math…yet.'”

How to create a wellness center

  • Form a committee that includes faculty, administrators, students, community members.
  • Visit and learn from other districts.
  • Identify space, funding needs, and funding sources.
  • Consider whether new staff needs to be hired, or if existing personnel can work in a wellness center.
  • Design an inviting space, and provide snacks and drinks.
  • Destigmatize the space so students go in for a variety of reasons, not just when they’re in crisis mode.

Destigmatize space

While wellness centers have started to sprout up in some districts, addressing overall health, these centers focus more on suicide.

In northern California, Palo Alto USD opened wellness centers at each of its two high schools in fall 2016. In the heart of Silicon Valley, the district is in a high-income area with high-achieving people—which can be highly competitive and "a hard place to be,” says Brenda Carrillo, director of student services who oversees the centers.

They are mainly designed to stem suicide—seven of the district’s students have committed suicide in the past 10 years.

Each center is supervised by a licensed clinician, and employs a social worker. They determine students’ needs and direct them to the correct resource, such as the school nurse if the student doesn’t feel well physically.

The center’s staff also offers tea, water and snacks to make students more comfortable about visiting. “Maybe we have one student who comes in to get tea for the entire year,” she says. “Then, if faced with a crisis, the student will feel more comfortable seeking help in this familiar space.”

Coloring books and stress-reducing toys are on hand to help students decompress and de-stress. “It’s really about destigmatizing the space,” Carrillo says. Students can also use the space to take a 15-minute break to recenter and reconnect, Carillo says.

It cost the district about $10,000 for furniture, posters and materials to make the space look inviting.

Sense of belonging

Student inclusion in the planning of the centers was very important, Carrillo says, to provide students with a second family and a sense of belonging.

Lisa Horowitz, a staff scientist and clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes wellness clinics are beneficial if they foster coping skills in students. Horowitz also urges those who work with students to understand that most youths won’t initiate a conversation about suicidal thoughts, but will discuss if asked.

“Get the conversation started ahead of time,” Horowitz says. “Don’t wait until they are in distress. A crisis is a hard time to learn a new skill. Teach the kids how to cope before the crisis sets in.”


Shawna De La Rosa is a freelance writer in California.