Wellness center supports students mental, emotional health at high school

Tribune Content Agency

LOS GATOS, Calif. — When Los Gatos High School returned to in-person learning after a year online during the pandemic, senior Julie Chen wanted to create a community where students could connect with each other.

Chen was already president of Cats to Cats, which connects students to mental health resources. She helped take her club’s mission a step further with Los Gatos High School’s wellness center, which opened in 2021. The wellness center is a space dedicated to supporting student mental and emotional health. At any time of day, students can visit the center to relax during the school day or have a drop-in session with an on-site therapist.

“One of the biggest things I remember is climbing up onto the walls and literally stapling the ‘wellness center’ words on it,” Chen said. “Having a space that’s really easily accessible for students has been really rewarding.”

One in four students at Los Gatos High School visited the center at least once last year.

“When building the wellness center, we wanted to make sure it was student-led because we wanted this to be a safe space for them,” said Amrita Vu, the center’s lead therapist. “It makes me so proud that students are able to come here and be completely vulnerable.”

The center is part of a district-wide post-pandemic effort to support student mental health. Heath Rocha, assistant superintendent of student services, said he’d visited San Francisco Unified School District’s wellness center more than a decade ago and wanted to bring something similar to Los Gatos. The pandemic, he added, was the final push that got the school board to approve the project.

In the California Healthy Kids 2022-23 mental health report, more than 30% of students reported feeling “chronic sadness,” one in seven students said they’d considered suicide, more than a third reported social and emotional distress and more than half said they had a low degree of satisfaction in their lives.

“There are so many more stressors on our adolescents where they need a place during the day where they can get the support they need to prevent it from escalating, to prevent it from becoming more severe, and getting the support they need,” Rocha said.

The board also green-lit the hiring of two staff members, Vu and wellness center coordinator Mariana Cozzella, to develop the space. The pair converted two classrooms near the campus library into a tranquil space for students to take a break and relax.

“After we opened, we opened the floodgates. It was very clear that there was a need for the space,” Cozzella said. “During COVID, it became very clear that there was a need for much more consistent support, more structure and a place for students to drop in during the day.”

There are bean bags, couches, meditation pods and activity tables in the room. Cozzella keeps the overhead ceiling lights off and plays calming music to keep the room from feeling like a classroom.

Students can come during lunch and breaks, or during class with a teacher’s note, to unwind or have a drop-in session with an on-site therapist.

“Really, the thing that drew me there was the community and how safe it felt in there, and how comfortable I felt being in there,” junior Archie Carlson said. “It’s reassuring to know that if you’re ever stressed out or overwhelmed, there is a space to go to calm down and take a beat. It definitely helps me during the day.”

Cozzella worked with students in peer-to-peer groups like Cats to Cats to develop the center and learn about what services students wanted. Chen said she worked with Cozzella from day one, and found one of the biggest hurdles was destigmatizing mental health on campus.

“I would hear people talking about (the wellness center) and wanting to go, but being afraid to access it,” Chen said. “Now, pretty much everyone knows about it and everyone wants to go. It’s really cool to see that stigma breaking.”

Students can set up a time to talk with a therapist in person, or can use the online therapy platform TalkSpace for free. The district partnered with the company this school year.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am now without having those connections. Having TalkSpace and being able to use that through the school is something that’s helped me these past two years,” sophomore Cam Usherwood said. “Without that program, I don’t think I’d be able to go to my classes.”

Vu can refer students to therapists outside the district with parental consent through a service called Care Solace, which connects local therapists to students.

For some students, the center is a place to hang out and meet friends during the school day.

Before the wellness center opened sophomore Amitis Hakimi would have to spend her free period in the library, which wasn’t a welcoming space for her.

“Going to the wellness center was such a nice experience. I know that every morning I went in…it was so welcoming and homey,” Hakimi said. “To sit in a place that was welcoming and I was comfortable, (where) there’s no judgment…felt really nice.”

The school board recently approved a $457,000 remodel of the space to tear down the wall between the two classrooms and build five offices for in-house therapists, bringing students closer to the help they need.

Before the pandemic, the district had a contract with the Council for Advancement of Social Service and Education, which worked with students who had individualized educational plans or special emotional needs but didn’t directly serve the entire student population. The wellness center is meant to be an accessible space for all students, Cozzella said.

“In the short time since we’ve built this wellness center, the biggest thing has been to destigmatize the mental health piece, to normalize it, and I think we’ve done a pretty darn good job,” Vu said.