Impact Stories

  • Maria Nicolacakis

A Soft Place To Land

The Wellness Center is a soft place to land when things are difficult and you need support. Learn more about this confidential space where students access support services to promote well-being so they can enjoy better health and academic success.

Donations from our community to LPIE provide $135,000 of funding to the Wellness Center at Acalanes. I recently zoomed with the Wellness Coordinator Allen Choi and Intake Specialist Casey Sasner to learn more about the Wellness Center and to understand how this funding supports students. Let’s hear what they had to say.

How did the Wellness Center come to be? Adolescent mental health was being discussed on a district-wide basis. The California Healthy Kids Survey, administered every two years, identified student overall well-being as a pressing issue, and parents and the district mobilized to figure out how to mitigate stress and better address crises. Everyone wanted to make it easier for kids to get help when they needed it. This is how the Wellness Center came to be, and it is currently in its third year.

What does the Wellness Center do? The Wellness Center is a confidential space where students access support services to promote well-being so they can enjoy better health and academic success. Students can participate in a variety of services including short-term mental health counseling, health office services, support groups, connections to community agencies, self-care skills and more. Wellness services provided to students are free and confidential. School-based mental health services are essential. The prior model was one where a mental health professional and other staff would work with high needs students. This model limited the number of students who could be seen in a given school year. The Wellness Center model allows school-based therapy and prevention programs to serve more kids. Access and self advocacy are more limited in the previous model. Access is critical and kids have access when they are at school. Students can refer themselves, which gives them autonomy, and can be seen usually within 10 days. However, the most urgent student needs take precedence and there are natural limitations to how many students can be seen at any given time. Students can also refer friends. There are a lot of hotlines out there, but having a familiar face can make a big difference.

What are some of the factors that will cause a student to reach out to Wellness? Adolescence can be a precarious time. What drives a kid to Wellness is usually an event that creates some type of overwhelm: academics, underlying mood conditions, relationship troubles (family, social and intimate), isolation, and now especially, broken routines. Being able to come

to Wellness to re-regulate their emotions or problem solve with someone is very empowering for the students. We practice therapeutic principles that empower students to be their own therapists. A student may just be having a hard day or a student may be dealing with an ongoing mental health issue. We see a spectrum of issues. The Wellness Center supports all students through the MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) framework. Tier One is schoolwide support and ALL students may tap into that. This includes access to our referral system for counseling and other school-based support systems, psycho- education on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), mental health and wellness-based programming, and social media tips and content. Tier Two provides targeted interventions for brief, school- based therapy and is for 5-15% of students. Tier Three is more intensive intervention and is for 3-5% of students which may include weekly therapy and coordination with outside resources.

Can you share some issues that are often seen? Issues that we see include: family dynamics, relationships, academics, anxiety and stress, ongoing pressures, being “othered” in any way (marginalized communities — LGBTQ, immigrants, ESL, new to the school, neuro-atypical, feel different from the norm), justice issues (restorative — racism, sexism), college stress, college decision processing related to disappointment and grief.

To what extent is stigma a barrier to kids asking for help? Surprisingly, stigma exists more for adults than it does for kids. We find there is less stigma in this community in general, but it is partially cultural. It helps to look at mental health with a lens on emotions rather than from a medical perspective. We are holding occasional Student Community Conversations during lunch to destigmatize mental illness. When students get to name their own experiences, and to hear about shared experiences, normalizing happens and that really helps the whole community.

Talk us through the intake process. What should a student expect if s/he reaches out or comes to the Wellness Center? What does that look like now during distance learning? A referral can be made through by anyone. We then review and triage the referral by urgency and time of referral. When school is physically in session, we typically send students a pass during an appropriate class period, with preference towards open periods and electives, and meet with the student. During distance learning, we take the extra step of making an informational check-in phone call directly with the student to understand the student’s situation, share about Wellness services, and assess the willingness and need to participate in therapy. After the initial check-in, we make a determination (along with the student) on whether continuing meetings make sense and how long they would last for.

How is Wellness operating during distance learning? We have called every student during Covid that has ever been to the Wellness Center. We changed to a non-blocked number, which has given us more access to students. During distance learning, we are offering four days a week of Wellness via zoom. We offer various activities, like journaling, games, mindfulness practice and more. We are still doing intakes and zoom or phone therapy (for Tier Two and Three students). Students can access the Wellness Center during regular school hours but we cannot pull students from synchronous classes. We can use Academy where a student does not need extra help or has not been tagged. Allen’s on- site hours were adjusted so he can meet after school. We do not typically meet with students during the early morning hours so as not to interrupt their sleep. However, for students who operate well in the morning, we will meet with students then during school hours.

How many people work in the Wellness Center and how is it funded? The intake specialist position, Casey, is full-time and the coordinator, Allen, is 0.8 employee (80%). Each year, we also have 2-3 part-time mental health support trainees who are graduate school level students doing their clinical hours. There are currently Wellness Centers at all the high schools in our district, and James Wogan is the new District Director of Wellness who supports district efforts. We are fortunate to have education foundations and a parent community that supports our work financially.

How is the Wellness Center a resource for parents/families? The Wellness Center is a resource for both parents and students — it truly is for everyone as everyone is interconnected. There is a limit in this environment to what an adolescent will accept in the way of advice from their parents and there is a limit to what a parent can hold in a neutral way. When a student comes to Wellness and asks a neutral party for help, it can feel scary at first and then it feels safe. Kids walk away having the satisfaction that they advocated for themselves.

What advice would you give parents during this time we are living in? Keep an open line of communication with your student by practicing compassionate, reflective listening. Like adults, adolescents want to be heard more than they want advice. They want to exercise autonomy and gain increased independence, which is really hard to do during shelter- in-place. While this is a high-stress time for parents and there’s much to occupy the worrying mind, it’s critical that adults practice self-care. Human beings are co-regulators which means we condition our emotions to the emotions of those around us. Students do look to us to see how we’re doing and we have the opportunity to model both resilience and settled bodies. This is a brand new environment for all of us! Let’s throw out the old rulebook and work to create a new

set of understandings with our kids. This means for us as parents that we need to be flexible as to their current needs and open in how we help them meet those needs.