When was the last time you walked the halls of a high school? Can you remember what you observed? Were there groups of students standing around talking to one another, waiting until the last minute to get to class before the bell rang? Could you tell just by watching who was in which group: the popular kids, the jocks, the smart kids, the band kids, the emo/goth kids, the loners, the kids who love anime, the Future Farmers of America kids?
High schools contain diverse students with diverse interests, yet they’re all part of one school. For the past 26 years, I have had the privilege of walking the halls of Westlake High School: 20 of those years as a teacher and six as an assistant principal. I have seen education change over these years, but the one constant was the students walking through those doors year after year.
The 2019–20 school year at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, UT, started off as you would imagine—a regular school year beginning. Students exuded excitement to be back with friends, be at football games, go to homecoming, and be a part of “Thunder Nation.” What many didn’t notice, however, was the students silently struggling. Students were spending more time in the counseling office and less time in class. Students seemed to be unable to cope with everyday life. They weren’t keeping up with schoolwork and often expressed crippling depression and anxiety as the reasons. As one of the school leaders, I knew that I needed to do something to help these students.
Focus Turns to Wellness
Recently, I heard about student wellness centers in schools, and I wanted to learn more. Could this be something that we could implement at our school? Could this be the answer—to teach strategies that students could use to deal with their anxiety and stress? I started my research. My motivations changed, however, on the last Friday of October 2019. I got a call that no school administrator ever wants to receive—that one of our students suddenly passed away. I was devastated. My coworkers were devastated. The student body was devastated. And then, five days later, my principal tearfully gathered the staff together and informed us that one of our students had died by suicide. I was stunned. I remember thinking, “This isn’t real. This cannot be happening.” I felt like our school was under attack and our students were in the crosshairs. I had to do something. We, the administrators, had to do something. We needed to teach our students how to live and reach out when they felt they couldn’t.
My mind kept returning to the idea of a student wellness center. I envisioned a place where students could go to self-regulate and decompress when they felt overwhelmed. I consulted with other school administrators who currently have wellness centers in their schools. Those administrators explained that about 80% of students who spend just 20 minutes in the wellness center report feeling more relaxed and ready to return to class. Just 20 minutes of decompression and self-regulation could be the difference between life and death. I remember thinking, “This is it. This is what we need to do.”
I also remember feeling almost immediately overwhelmed with all of the logistical obstacles. How could I make this happen at Westlake? How would we pay for it? How would we find the right people who are trained to help high school-aged kids learn coping strategies? Would my team be supportive? What would teachers think of it? Would this help prevent another suicide? I decided that doing something was better than doing nothing, and even if the wellness center helped just one kid not to feel alone, turn to self-harm, or take their own life, then it would be worth all the effort and money.
Putting a Plan Into Place
In public education, money is always an issue. While funding for emotional wellness in schools has increased somewhat over the years, it is still not a priority. I wanted to make it a priority. Three weeks after our second student passed away, I met Paul Feyereisen, chief impact officer and founder of The IM Foundation. Somehow, he heard what our school had been through and wanted to help. One of Feyereisen’s goals is to help build student wellness centers in schools across the country. He actually walked into Westlake High School and offered to help however he could. I couldn’t believe it. At that moment, I knew we were going to get the wellness center and save our students.
Four months later, the IM Wellness Center at our school was set to open. It was exciting to know that all our efforts were about to pay off for those students who needed our help. Unfortunately, the weekend before we opened, a call came from our principal … another one of our students committed suicide—the third one in this school year. There are no words to describe the confusion and utter anguish that everyone felt. How would we tell our staff and students? How would we get through this again? How does a school help the students who are left behind—help them begin to process what has happened?
That week at school, following the suicide of the third student, was surreal. The grief we all felt was painful, but it also was a force that bonded us together. I was so grateful we had the wellness center open. More than 400 kids came through its door that week. Students found comfort and support in a safe space designed to help them process the heartache of losing three classmates in one year.
The IM Wellness Center at Westlake serves a variety of purposes at our school. First and foremost, the wellness center is a solid Tier 2 intervention for students who, on any given day, aren’t able to manage their emotional health on their own. Because of our partnership with the IM Foundation, our wellness center is run by a licensed individual who is available for one-on-one conversations if needed. She is there to teach students strategies for coping and to explore ways to help them understand what works for them to decompress from whatever situation they might be dealing with. Tools such as fidgets, kinetic sand, coloring supplies, noise-canceling headphones, and weighted blankets—to name a few—are available to students who need help going through the decompression process.
Second, the wellness center provides weekly Wellness Wednesday groups, which take place after school. Students participate in discussions on a variety of wellness topics that are of interest to them. They discuss things such as how to handle stress, how to manage anxiety, how food affects your mood, communicating with parents, and mindfulness, just to name a few. These groups are run by our licensed wellness coordinator and have been extremely impactful. Lastly, if you were to come to our wellness center, you would see that everything in it serves a purpose. The furniture, the soft relaxing music, the smell of essential oils, the texture of the fabrics used, the tools available to all who use the wellness center are intentional and mindfully thought out to create a safe space for students to learn how to manage their own emotional health.
I have to believe that while my high school lost three students in one year, we have helped and saved more students than we know. The wellness center isn’t the perfect cure to teen suicide, but I know that it will have a huge impact on our students. I look forward to seeing my students empowered and taking control of the way they cope with their daily struggles.
I love my job as an assistant principal. I love my school. More than anything, I love the students. I know that the impact we can have in the lives of our students reaches far beyond academics.
Jennifer Bitton is the assistant principal at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, UT.