Wellness Centers Across San Rafael City Schools Hope to Support Student Health and Success
May 25, 2023
As a teen San Rafael High Student student, Camila Torrez felt mental health was a topic worth becoming comfortable speaking about in school and at home. “As I began opening up about my difficult past, it became easier for me to understand I am not the only one going through these things,” she said. Torrez noted that the Covid Pandemic and returning for her junior year caused her anxiety to heighten. Torrez began seeking support around campus from anyone who would listen. “Even with the support I received from teachers and counselors, I still felt like I needed a specific person that I could reach out to or have a space where I could go whenever I might need,” Torrez shared.
During her senior year of high school, she was part of a wellness circle group that met every Friday. The program was new to her, but she decided to do it since she believed it would be beneficial. It was the perfect place to be around other individuals going through similar experiences giving her the strength to know she was not alone. Torrez began to meet with Colleen Conradi, who became someone she would open up to throughout the first couple of months of senior year. Along with Torrez’s meetings with Conradi, she’d also check into the Wellness Center for “brain breaks” or to take a moment to relax. “Some days, I felt overwhelmed and just wanted to take time. Before I knew brain breaks were a thing, I would take long bathroom breaks and just pass by the Wellness Center without even thinking about going in.” Now, whenever Camila needs time to herself or someone to talk to, she knows she can visit the Wellness Center or ask for a “brain break” pass.
Torrez learned of constructive, stress-relieving strategies that proved beneficial to her psychological health. “My therapist helped me realize that sometimes you need to journal or listen to some of your favorite songs. Take time to feel your emotions.” Allowing her to recognize that her therapist visits and mental health talks among friends had made it easier to handle looming emotions.
The Wellness Center became a staple in her life not only because it supported her but because it allowed her to feel understood by the staff and adults around her. Torrez can now individually identify her negative emotions and tackle them head-on.
Ryan Vasquez’s Story
“Throughout the first semester of my Junior year, the Wellness Center helped me get through hardships and made me a stronger person when it comes to dealing with my mental health,” shared Ryan Vasquez, an SRHS student who enjoys participating in extra-curricular activities such as Link Crew, sports, and hosting his podcast. Vasquez recently began visiting the Wellness Center at the beginning of the twenty-twenty-three school year to speak with professionals regarding his physiological health. “I was online during my first year and just had to speak with teachers about this sort of stuff.” Previously, Ryan would speak with teachers about what was internally bothering him, but felt he was oversharing and struggled to feel comfortable.
Noticing the posters strung around campus, curious Ryan decided to take it upon himself to visit during a lunch break. The wellness staff welcomed him with a sense of non-judgment. Establishing the safe space this center would become for Ryan and many other students alike. “Card games, plushies, fidget toys, couches, feels vibrant and alive. It differs from other rooms around campus,” said Ryan. Vasquez now visits the Wellness Center for various reasons averaging around five times per week, if not more. Spending upwards of 45 minutes for sessions or longer if he has homework assigned. Visiting during his lunch and brunch breaks to socialize within the lounge area. The Wellness Center became a kind-of refuge for Ryan, a safe space where he may genuinely accept his emotions and freely express them.
Ryan adds, “I don’t feel judged for visiting or why when I visit. Although if I were in a down mood, refraining from saying hello altogether may sometimes be the better option.” Revealing one of the reasons why many students such as Ryan feel especially welcomed within the Wellness Center. The wellness staff’s judgment-free environment effectively attracts students due to social polarization.
One particular day, Ryan mentally broke down in the middle of class. So, he decided to go for a brain break and proceeded to the Wellness Center. During this experience, Judy Schwerin, Wellness Coordinator, and therapist Paulina Montes supported Ryan through his negative emotions and eventually calmed him.
This situation had an overall profound effect on Ryan, who now is confidently able to say, “I’m more connected with the staff despite them being busy; I like to visit as often as I get the chance because they make me feel extremely welcomed and I don’t feel judged.” Empowering Ryan to return to class in a much more tranquil and class-appropriate state.
The Birth of Wellness Centers
The Wellness Center was and continues to be essentially a room where students may visit to speak one-on-one with community partners from Bay Area Community Resources, Canal Alliance, Youth and Family Services, Center for Domestic Peace, and now licensed therapists. In efforts to minimize the quantity of stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions they face daily. Students can furthermore request a “brain break” pass permitting a 15-minute visit to the Wellness Center with the focus of returning to class in a healthier, more concentrated state.
The implementation of the Wellness Center did not come with ease; the community, parents, students, and staff recognized the gap in services offered to students at San Rafael High School. Advocating for the inclusion of an onsite center that could cater to the diverse needs of students. Judy Schwerin said, “Every student is different, so having a wide range of therapists is necessary to meet the various needs of our students.”
In 2017, limited by its area and staff, the Wellness Center lacked helpful outreach resources that would attract students, such as self or peer referrals. The structure of room AD-245 had trouble thriving due to the controversy surrounding mental health issues and the degrading stigma associated. Compared to now, the Wellness Center didn’t have licensed therapists that could work with students. Instead, they had C.B.Os or community-based organizations that would send in trained mental health specialists that could become mentors for students. Organizations such as Huckleberry, B.A.C.R, and the San Rafael Police Department would provide therapists to fill positions around the Wellness Center.
“It made it difficult for the therapists not being full-time at SR to establish something to help students know that there was this safe space at school,” said Wellness Intervention Specialist; Colleen Conradi. The different groups of therapists would rotate in and out through the office. Meaning it wasn’t one fixed group’s office, making establishing a functioning, well-organized wellness team difficult.
Today, the proportions of the Wellness Center have greatly expanded to fill what previously was about a classroom and a half’s worth of room. A team of staff, admin, and students met to determine the location for this up-to-date facility that would best serve the student body. With the augmented space comes an increased number of expanded offices, a larger lounge area, a conference room, and a service desk to attend to incoming students. Dramatically changing the interior and exterior design of the room, shifting it away from its previously subtle presence. The recent upgrade was completed right in time for the twenty-twenty-two school year, with the development lasting about an entire year.
With the funds allocated to cover the expenses from the Mental Health Student Services Act, a 4-year grant provides approximately $300,000 per year amongst three district Wellness Center programs. (San Rafael High School, Terra Linda High School, and Davidson Middle School)
The current Wellness Center staff is composed of many trained or trained mental health workers, including its Wellness Coordinator, Judy Schwerin, Wellness Outreach Specialist; Gloria Cisneros, four mental health clinicians; and School Psychologist, Bethany Toy.
During March of 2023, 828 students visited the Wellness Center for brain breaks to hang out before school, during brunch, lunch, and group or individual sessions. One hundred forty-five students were referred or self-referred to receive mental health services, court case management support, multidisciplinary interventions, and additional services during check-ins.
Throughout the various sessions conducted with students, the Wellness Center deals with a diverse range of issues and must deal with them appropriately. As a result Judy Schwerin, Wellness Coordinator, explains how their therapist assignment process works. Judy makes it a point to personally check in with every referred student, whether by self, peer, or administrative referral. Informing them of who contacted the Wellness Center and how the Wellness Center is eager to assist. She then discusses with the students the most beneficial way the Wellness Center may serve them. Ms. Schwerin connects each student with the proper therapist as she now better understands what is needed. Connecting students with crisis support therapists or the Spahr Centers’ therapist, who serves LGBT+ students. The triaging done by the Wellness Centers’ Coordinator allows for students’ needs to be recognized, commencing the process of amelioration. The Wellness Center does not allow the diverse demographic of San Rafael High School to prevent them from supporting Spanish-speaking students, offering all the same services and more in Spanish.
When questioned about the necessity of these services, therapist Paulina Montes states, “I believe addressing mental health needs is part of a holistic education approach. Holistic education is the comprehensive approach to teaching where faculty seek to address students’ emotional, social, ethical, and academic needs in an integrated learning format. Contributing to students’ success academically, psychologically, and beyond. By addressing all of the factors contributing to well-being, educators can provide a better learning environment for students.”
The Wellness Centers’ therapists work in varied modalities providing Cognitive behavioral, Somatic, and Structured-based therapy methods, to name a few. Cognitive behavioral therapy breaks down negative distortions, behaviors, and thoughts. Focusing on thinking patterns and exposing students to anxiety-inducing situations to break down prior patterns or habits. Somatic is a therapeutic method emphasizing experiences from the mind, body, and the connection between the two. Structured-based therapy is designed to increase social responsibility, establish self-motivation, and ingrain beneficial mental methods to aid students’ reintroduction into the school environment.
Being solution-focused, the Wellness Center supports students with current goals to remain within reasonably school-appropriate topics. Refraining from more profound, intense therapy, given it may not be the most effective when students must then return to class afterward. If students do not hesitate to share their experiences, the wellness team is not hesitant to meet them where they are.
The center partners with amazing community-based organizations, including the Bay Area Community Resources, Huckleberry Youth Programs, Canal Alliance, and the Spahr Center. These organizations provide scheduled therapists who work alongside district-hired therapists to assist the Madrone and San Rafael High School students.
The Wellness Center follows a short-term-school-based model, meaning each student is guaranteed 8-12 sessions. This number may be subject to change if the wellness team recognizes the need for further sessions throughout the remainder of the school year. Once students follow through with their sessions, the Center assesses what would work best for each student—connecting them with outside providers such as Huckleberry Youth or Bay Area Community Resources, who may work with students year-round. Outside of scheduled sessions, the Wellness Center provides student court case proceeding support, parental support, and group support.
Stigmatization of Mental Health
At San Rafael High School, the Wellness Center was added in 2022. While students did try to make a difference in reducing the stigma around mental health, it wasn’t easy. Such as when Colleen Conradi attempted to start a suicide prevention movement during her senior year of high school, yet it wasn’t supported by staff and wasn’t taken seriously by the student body. Many felt ashamed or as if they were to speak out; they would not be taken seriously and be viewed in a negative light.
As a student myself (Viviana), to this day, I feel as though when I share what I am going through with my therapist, I feel like I’m a burden in a way. It’s as if I’m scared of oversharing the stuff that causes me to feel a certain way daily. Although the stigma might have decreased, many still feel their issues aren’t as important. This is what our Wellness Center has worked on improving and, by doing so, allows many students to feel welcome and valued.
Stigmatization relates to the discrimination many encounter when they open up about the problems affecting their mental health. Two types of stigmas occur in teens, including social and self-induced stigma. Social stigma relates to negative attitudes and discriminatory behavior toward those with mental health problems. While self-stigma is self-produced, stemming from feelings of guilt and shame. Both primarily affect those who try to open up about their problems and receive support.
Over the years, specifically after the COVID pandemic, this stigma seemed to have decreased, given that many realized they weren’t the only ones going through mental problems. The pandemic has been known to have increased depression nationwide and mental health issues as illustrated in “Depression rates tripled and symptoms intensified during first year of COVID-19,” a Brown University article written by Corrie Pikul. “Depression among U.S. adults persisted, and worsened, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic,” seeming to open new doors for those beginning to notice the pandemic’s toll on their mental health, enabling many to talk with therapists or connect with other resources around that could assist them.
Terra Linda High Schools’ Wellness Center
Noticing the potential mental toll of the pandemic and managing the various aspects of life while transitioning into adulthood, the administration provided the funds to develop their own Wellness Center following the pandemic. The Terra Linda High School Wellness Center shares a very similar structure with the Wellness Center at San Rafael High School, providing mental health services such as supportive psychotherapy, support groups, and even therapy animals. Similarly, students may refer themselves to the therapists available within the Wellness Center.
The wellness team consists of Wellness Coordinator; Nicole Janson, a Wellness Outreach Specialist; Marlena Montano, a School Psychologist; Brianna Gallardo, four mental health clinicians; and four school counselors available to support students’ overall well-being.
All students visiting the Wellness Center do so freely or through their referral system, which may be initiated by classmates, parents, teachers, administrators, or voluntarily by oneself. QR codes are accessible around the school’s campus for students to refer themselves or a friend, while parents may access this form online via the Terra Linda High School website. Students may also visit the Wellness Center regularly to socialize during brunch and lunch breaks. Students are free to come and go as they please, without limits on when or why they visit, making the Wellness Center an inviting destination for many Terra Linda High School students.
Referrals make it effortless to connect students with constructive mental health services in a less conspicuous manner. The number of students who have been referred for an initiating session since the implementation of the Wellness Center is 159. Of those, 97 were adult-generated, and 62 were self or refer-a-friend. From August through December of 2022, the drop-in number or number of students who came in for something like a simple tea or actual session was 1225.
Despite this, Nicole Janson, the Terra Linda Wellness Coordinator, communicates that when she first started working as a school therapist, she would rush between the Terra Linda and San Rafael wellness sites because Janson was the only therapist available between the two—making it nearly impossible to keep up with the large sum of students. Hidden away in a back office, Ms. Janson would strictly work with students who specifically had services written into their plan, not the general student body.
Today, Ms. Janson does not work directly with students, but available are four part-time therapists that rotate in and out to fill the position of two full-time therapists—partnering with many community-based organizations such as the Sphar Center, Huckleberry Youth Programs, Canal Alliance, and Marin County Behavioral Health. C.B.Os typically provide staff and student training, psycho-educational groups, case management support, and direct mental health services to students.
The Center holds prevention as a top priority considering reacting can sometimes be too late. Holding events and tabling at brunch time to spread the resources and tools to increase students’ mental awareness. With the ultimate goal of connecting students with ongoing services aside from the Wellness Center that may assist them outside of the restrictive school year schedule.
Jennifer Addison, a Terra Linda High School student, had much to share about her experience with the Wellness Center. Jennifer is a current junior who finds excellent comfort inside the four walls of the Wellness Center at Terra Linda High School. Frequenting the center as often as possible, during brunch, lunch, and even free periods, she confidently relaxes and works on homework.
Jennifer recognizes that the Wellness Center provides her with a welcoming and safe environment where she can decompress from the chaotic hallways and classrooms. Visiting the center around six times per day, these visits may range from a brain break during class, spending time before school begins, or her scheduled sessions with therapists. “The Wellness Center provides a safe space for all people to go when they just need a break from school or to get away from the stress of it all,” Addison shared. The center provides students with a haven within the school environment, allowing them to take a mental and physical breath returning to class in a more tranquil state.
Before the implementation of the Wellness Center, the volume of available support was minimal. An individualized educational plan or I.E.P. would have been the only route to follow when seeking school-based mental health support, but was limited by the number of available school therapists. Solely working with therapists assigned through Jennifers’ I.E.P. meant meeting with trained professionals less frequently, resulting in almost ineffective meetings due to the periodic scheduling. With fewer therapists, the number of students who could be tended to within a day was significantly less than it is today.
Alaina Cho’s Perspective
Another student at Terra Linda High School who was willing to speak on their interactions with the Wellness Center had terrific things to attribute. Alaina Cho, a Terra Linda High School senior, participates in sports and works after school hours. She usually works strictly on weekends due to her practices throughout the season, but occasionally picks up additional shifts. Resulting in significantly less opportunity to focus and work on her well-being, forcing her to ignore negative emotions that seem to get in the way of her responsibilities. Cho began going into the Wellness Center around its initial addition, curious to catch sight of this new development.
Instructing her to visit the Wellness Center to meet with Ms. Janson to check in and commence her relationship with the Center. Cho added, “I noticed the QR codes around campus and assumed it was the only way to visit the Wellness Center.” So she filled out a self-referral with the hope of speaking with someone within the center, and after two school days, she received a pass in class. After this initial meeting with the Wellness Coordinator, Alaina understands she may visit throughout the day, even before and after classes. With this in mind, she utilizes the space frequently, visiting to work on assignments, unwind, and meet for scheduled sessions. Usually on A-days when the block schedule permits her to spend more time within the center before heading to work.
Why is Heightened Support Essential for Students’ Success?
The efforts to assist students through mental difficulties and life’s hurdles allow them to focus on what they are meant to do at school in the first place. It may be immensely challenging to prioritize one’s education in opposition to conflict or emotional affliction. With the support of the Wellness Center, we can hear and notice tension being lifted off of students when they are able to recuperate or speak with someone willing to listen. This opportunity alleviates students from persisting ideologies, anxiety, and panic attacks, making the overall experience on campus a little less demanding on students’ multifaceted lives.
Yet, many students are still unaware of the resources available within the center. Since many are uncomfortable speaking about the support they receive within the Wellness Center, most of these meetings can be touchy for students. So, sharing what happens and why can be a stretch for most. We’ve noticed this when reaching out to students in regards to their personal experiences with the Wellness Center; most did not respond, except for a few.
We’ve come a long way since the 1880s, acknowledging the potential effects of deteriorating mental health. Students may now reach out for personal health services within school in an accessible and beneficial way. But, along with that come the less fluid aspects of the Wellness Center that make it challenging for students to receive support and get the most out of what the center has to offer.
As mentioned by Wellness Coordinator; Judy Schwerin, wellness center therapists do their best to abstain from performing trauma-inducing therapy sessions, being they might be overly heavy for some students, especially in a school setting. This hindrance can be seen as a negative and positive since students should remain in the proper state for their return to class, but should this prevent them from receiving the most effective form of therapy?
Negative habits and thoughts develop over a long period of time and may stem from an instance or repeated instances in an individual’s past. So unraveling these habits and ideologies from their root may be the only way to manage a specific case; this proves to be the best option in certain scenarios, which means connecting students with ongoing services outside of the center. Additionally, the school year’s schedule hinders the magnitude of support students may receive, considering the various breaks throughout the year.