Less than three months into the school year, new wellness centers at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools have been visited about 2,500 times by students stopping by for everything from mental health counseling to snacks.
Staff from the wellness centers, along with Brenda Carrillo, the Palo Alto school district's director of wellness and student services, gave a presentation on the new spaces at Wednesday's meeting of youth well-being collaborative Project Safety Net.
The centers, which opened at the start of this school year, are helping the district to achieve several ambitious goals, school representatives and students said Wednesday: increasing students' access to mental health services, decreasing stigma around seeking help and coordinating care.
This summer, staff at each school transformed spaces on campus into the wellness centers, repainting walls and adding comfortable couches, coloring books, friendly looking signage and tea and food for students. At Paly, the wellness center is housed in the Tower Building, across from the main office. Gunn converted its health office, also across from the main office, into the new space.
The wellness centers bring many, though not yet all, of the high schools' health-related staff under one roof: school psychiatrists, nurses and new wellness outreach workers hired this year, who serve as the first point of contact at the centers and help triage students for any need — social-emotional, academic, physical or otherwise. The wellness center teams work closely with the schools' guidance counselors as well as partnering community organizations that provide more targeted mental health services, such as Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), the Stanford University Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI).
Before the centers provided a physical space to coordinate these efforts, the "onus was on the student" to navigate the myriad resources at the schools, Carrillo said Wednesday. The schools' systems were less efficient, with students sometimes being referred to duplicate services, wellness staff said.
"The idea of the wellness center is it's one door," Carrillo said.
And many students are walking through that door. There have been approximately 2,526 drop-in visits at Paly and Gunn's wellness centers, according to Carrillo. The majority (890) came in for a snack; others visited the nurse (396) or simply needed a break (302).
The two centers have provided 4,211 direct services -- such as a counseling session or meeting with the school nurse -- provided to 1,233 unique students, Carrillo said.
The majority of students who have sought individual counseling sessions at the wellness centers did so because of psychological issues (62 percent), which include depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other anxiety or mood disorders,
Twenty-nine percent came in for a social or emotional issue relating to social dynamics, relationships (peer, family or romantic) and/or new or severed attachments such as blended family challenges or grief and loss, according to Frecceri.
Five percent sought counseling support related to an issue at home or with their family, according to Carrillo.
Wellness referrals are closely split by gender at both schools, though slightly more female students have been referred than male (53 percent compared to 46 percent, respectively). Anyone on campus, including teachers, staff and students, can refer students to the wellness center through the school counselors, psychologist or by going directly to the center. The wellness centers aim to streamline the referral process, Carrillo said.
Paly's wellness center is seeing the highest rates of juniors and freshmen, said Jonathan Frecceri, the school's mental health coordinator. He attributed that to the fact that juniors "tend to get referred quite a bit." He wrote in an email after the meeting that this is "in part because 11th grade is known for being one of the most active academic years in high school as students start preparing for the college application process."
Freshmen from both schools toured the wellness centers during orientation at the start of the year.
"As incoming classes come in, it's just going to become a staple," Frecceri said.
At Gunn, seniors came in most rapidly, but the center is seeing a rise in the number of freshmen coming in, said Mental Health Coordinator Joanne Michels. Freshmen are bringing each other in groups, she said.
High school students said Wednesday that the wellness centers are having a visible impact on students and school climate, from simply offering busy students a relaxing space to grab a much-needed snack to providing a higher level of coordination between groups working wellness-related efforts.
"Being able to walk in there, having a smiling face by the door, some nice ambiance and a comfy seat and a coloring book is very calming," said Chloe Sorensen, Gunn student body president and co-founder of the school's student wellness committee.
At Paly, the wellness outreach workers have helped student groups put on events, including an activity the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) organized for National Coming Out Day earlier this month. (The students baked gingerbread and sugar-cookies in the shape of people and had students decorate them in however they wanted to express their gender identity.)
Two QSA officers, Paly senior Max Usman and junior Maddy Lee, credited the wellness center with giving their group more visibility this year. In Usman's four years of being a part of Paly's QSA, the "genderbread" activity was the club's first on-campus event that other members of the student body showed up and actively participated in, he said.
"Having the wellness center has been such an amazing impact on how we run our club, how we see ourselves on campus and how the rest of the campus sees us," he added.
For Cezanne Lane, Paly student government's social justice and school climate commissioner, the wellness centers provide a physical gathering space for the school's brand-new student wellness committee. It's also helping to bring together previously siloed wellness efforts on campus, she said.
"What I've seen is there's not a lack of initiatives but there is, to me, a lack of collaboration," Lane said. "To me (the wellness center) solidifies (that) we're all in this together. We're all working for the same goal. So is this space."
Guidance counselors and wellness staff at both Paly and Gunn also started a new daily logging system this fall to track and monitor what services students come in for, which ones they receive and the outcome of the visit, Paly Principal Kim Diorio said in a previous interview. That will help the schools quantify anecdotal data, something that's been lacking, she said in August.
Frecceri and Michels described the new spaces as "wellness center 1.0." In several years, Gunn will have a new two-story building to house a larger wellness space, and Paly is hoping to take advantage of forthcoming renovations to the library to expand its center.
Until and beyond then, the centers' success depends not only on what goes on within their walls, but a broader school-wide embrace of their efforts, Michels said.
"It's not just the wellness team, people who have a counseling background or mental health background, but really enlisting the support of teachers (and) administration — that they are instruments and tools for wellness as well.
"It's not just the physical space; it's also a paradigm shift," she said.