Dewan: Why we need wellness centers for schools
Bret Harte Middle School in the San Jose Unified School District. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The last 18 plus months have been challenging for students, families and all school personnel due to pandemic-related circumstances.

There was a crisis of youth mental health looming and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people having thoughts of suicide and experiencing depression has nearly doubled as compared to the years before the pandemic. One in five California high school students considered suicide in the last 12 months.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness, spread hope and share essential information. Youth suicide is preventable. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has valuable resources, including how to know the warning signs and risk factors of suicide, being prepared for a crisis and navigating a mental health crisis.

The California Mental Health Services Authority provides a 24-hour suicide prevention lifeline available at 1-800-273-8255.  And the California parent and youth helpline offers call, text or live chat at 855-427-2736.

With the return to full in-person instruction, schools are effectively implementing COVID-19 risk mitigation measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on school campuses. These safety precautions attend to the physical health and wellbeing of youth and are key to their educational and academic progress.

We must also recognize the importance of timely access to mental health care and wellness programs, and the pivotal role of schools in increasing that access. Youth are 21 times more likely to receive access to the mental health services they want and need when mental health and wellness services are provided at school.

The Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Youth Advisory Group shares that youth are expressing feelings of anxiety and stress over social and educational issues as they transition from remote to in-person learning. It is important to our youth that we acknowledge that these feelings are valid and respond to their requests by increasing easy access to wellness spaces and providing resources for students about self-care, social anxiety and interactions, offering opportunities to deal or cope with stress through interactive lessons, peer supports, telecounseling and wellness center activities.

Many schools in Santa Clara County, in anticipation of the increased social, emotional and mental health needs of youth, added staff to support youth social and emotional development, as well as opened or expanded wellness centers on school campuses. School counselors, nurses, social workers and liaisons serve critical functions and support the continuity of learning for youth.

Wellness centers can significantly reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health services, as well as increase attendance and the likelihood of graduation. Wellness centers as easily accessible, designated safe spaces on school campuses are designed to support student’s healthy development, wellness and mental health by offering integrated prevention, early intervention, peer support, access to School Linked Services, direct service programs and opportunities. Wellness centers promote an inclusive school culture and ensure school is a place where all youth belong and are welcomed.

There is strong evidence in support of these investments at schools. A recently released comprehensive analysis of 213 studies of school-based social and emotional learning initiatives and programs found that youth enjoyed improved social skills, attitudes and behaviors, recovered more quickly from trauma and saw dramatic improvements in academic achievement as a result of school based social-emotional and mental health programs.

The Mental Health Oversight Accountability Commission published a report about the needs and roles of schools as centers of wellness. The full report is available here.

The wellbeing of Santa Clara County’s youth is foundational to their future. Efforts that help youth develop their social and emotional wellness and establish healthy relationships strengthens the overall health and safety of our entire community.

San José Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan is the superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. She has more than 33 years of experience in the field of education. Her columns appear every third Monday of the month.

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