Education / Schools

Wellness center reaches out to teens during pandemic

San Benito High School aims to end the stigma of depression and anxiety.

COVID-19 has had an impact on students, not just with changes in school routines and schedules, but with feelings of isolation, depression and concerns about the future.  

San Benito High School opened its Wellness Center in March 2020 as an immediate response, providing an extensive online resource for students. In early 2021, the school opened a physical location on campus where students can come for in-person advice and counseling.

The research into creating the wellness center began in fall 2019, before the pandemic arrived. Deborah Armstrong, assistant principal, and Samantha Rivas, who serves as the school’s intervention and support counselor, investigated similar programs at other schools.

“We recognized the need for this on our campus,” Armstrong said. “We presented the proposal, but the trigger to getting it established was when the school was shut down because of the virus on March 13, 2020. Suddenly everyone was going through this crisis and the district said, ‘Absolutely do what you can to help the students.’ So we set up the website so we could support our kids remotely.”

The online part of the wellness center offers extensive content on a variety of subjects. There are archived podcasts and videos promoting awareness of physical and mental health issues; a “relaxation room” with music to help with stress or meditation; a section for daily challenges and wellness activities; and a creativity section with access to digital art programs.

There is also a parent section with links to mental and physical health resources, information about COVID-19, and contact information for respite care and food resources.

Students who need support or counseling can also book a time online for one-on-one Google Meets, Zoom calls, or phone appointments.

San Benito High School’s wellness center plan always included a location on campus for students who needed personal assistance, but COVID restrictions kept that part of the project on hold. Now that small groups of students have returned to regular classes and activities, the center has opened up to help those on campus.

Prior to the wellness center, the school relied on its traditional staff of counselors. The new center allows them to coordinate more types of assistance for students who have more diverse needs.

“Our normal school counselors are highly trained in a variety of areas,” Armstrong said, “but it was harder to access the community providers. We have centralized everything, so now if a child needs mental health help, there is this one place they can go to get it. Right now, that includes those who are already considered to be a marginalized group who are one of the cohorts on campus, but we have had 200 students come to us so far.”

The center is limited to taking care of 10 students a day in-person, with most of the students coming from that on-campus cohort. Of all of the mental health issues students are dealing with, isolation is the most difficult, according to Rivas.

“Our students are really lonely,” she said. “They are wanting to connect. For a while, we were doing a lot of counseling online through Zoom, but we are starting to see tremendous Zoom fatigue. We have kids who just do not want to do that anymore, so we have given them the option to come in. It has been working out great and I really wish we could bring more students on campus. But there is a limit to how many we can handle right now.”

The biggest challenge for the wellness center right now is that few students and their families know they are there. Staff members are particularly interested in reaching out to students who were not involved in a club or a sport, or did not have a strong social structure when they were on campus. 

“Those are the students that are having the hardest time dealing with their problems and their isolation,” Rivas said. “They need to know that they can reach out and that there are strategies to help them. They can still be involved with other students in other ways, like joining an online club. They can come to activities where they can learn different techniques for anxiety. We want them to know there are resources for them out there and to teach them how they can access those resources.”

San Benito High School is sending out several postcards announcing the wellness center and its resources, but Armstrong is hoping for greater awareness, particularly among parents.

“We were waiting for the space to be finished before we started the publicity,” she said. “We have done a lot on social media, but 10% of our students don’t have access even to email. Students don’t always share their problems with their parents, so we want the parents to encourage them to seek us out if they need help.”

With the programs, the on-campus site, and the website all in place, students can now seek out the help they need.

“We want them just to be able to take that first step,” Rivas said. “Breathing. Focusing on the now. Working through problems by going outside and taking a walk. Connecting with friends. Taking five minutes a day to do a mini-meditation. We are talking to our kids about these things and I don’t think we have ever done much of that in the past. It is a good time to be giving them those tools, to help them in this time of high anxiety.”

 

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.