The Oracle

In the pursuit of wellness: Are we making a difference?

Liza Kolbasov, Grace Tramack, and Jessica Wang

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During the 2009-2010 school year, Palo Alto lost six students to suicide. Our community lost another four students in the 2013-2014 year. Following these tragedies, our school, district and community made various efforts to better understand what the causes were and take preventive measures.

Nearly a decade after the first suicide contagion, The Oracle is taking a look at what has changed between now and then. In the Pursuit of Wellness is an investigative reporting initiative that aims to answer the following questions:

I. What have we done to prevent suicides and improve mental health?

II. Are these measures really working?

III. What can we do better moving forward?

This article is the second of a three-part series called In the Pursuit of Wellness, an investigative reporting initiative on Gunn’s efforts towards mental wellness. In this installment, The Oracle investigates the effectiveness of the wellness initiatives introduced in the previous installment.

Over the years, significant research and data analysis has been carried out in order to examine the effectiveness of various wellness initiatives. The Wellness Outreach Team collected data and assembled a report on the impact of wellness efforts in the district throughout the 2017-18 school year.

ADVANCED PLACEMENT STATISTICS PROJECTS

In December 2018, math teacher Daisy Renazco asked her statistics students to study an area of improvement for student life. Of the variety of topics chosen, some focused on student wellness. “From my perspective, the fact that students are interested in studying the topic of wellness is a success in itself,” Renazco said. For the project, those students conducted a number of surveys on the student body about the wellness services.

Following discussions about the results, many of Renazco’s statistics students concluded that the suicide prevention program Sources of Strength was a useful wellness initiative. The peer leader network trained by Sources of Strength effectively provided support. “What I thought was really awesome was that students recognized that the Sources of Strength program would be a good place to put work into,” Renazco said. “When students get overwhelmed, they turn to their friends.”

According to a random sample survey conducted by junior Tara Devaraj, 87.5 percent of students talk to their friends first about emotional trouble. As students tend to trust their peers more, even students not involved in the statistics project believe that student-led programs are more impactful. “Students have done a better job at dealing with their fellow students’ mental health than the administration actually has,” an anonymous student said.

Senior Meghna Singh has been involved in Sources of Strength, is co-president of the Reach Out, Care, Know (ROCK) club and was the Wellness Commissioner during her junior year. She has found ROCK to be an important bridge between wellness initiatives and students. “There’s definitely a really good core community filled with people who look out for one another who are supportive,” she said. “It’s really nice to have that community, and it also overlaps with the people in Sources of Strength because we all promote the same messages.”

Singh also said that she has received positive feedback for the petting zoo that ROCK organized before finals since 2015, as well as the rock painting event that the Wellness Center hosted. “The whole point of why we do what we do and try and reduce the stigma is so that we’re initiating these conversations,” Singh said. “I think a lot can happen when people are open about their experiences, whether it be good or bad, and then pass those conversations on to everybody.”

WELLNESS CENTER USAGE

According to the Wellness & Support Services Mid-Year Update presented for the March 27, 2018 Board of Education meeting, from August 2017 to January 2018, there were a total of 3,973 visits to the Wellness Center. Of those, 1,616 were for the Health Office, 832 were for a snack or water, 635 were for an appointment with a mental health counselor or a therapist, 547 were for a 15-minute breaks and 268 resulted from the need to talk to a counselor without an appointment. The remaining 75 visits were for assorted reasons, including working on or participating in a wellness project or group.

Despite the variety of visits, Renazco’s statistics students discovered through the project that the Wellness Center is still underutilized by the entire student body. “What they found was that the proportion, or percentage, of kids that are going to the Wellness Center is actually small, based off of their random sample, but that the small sample use it regularly,” Renazco said.

In a random sample survey conducted by Renazco’s statistics students, 56.25 percent of students had never visited the Wellness Center in the past month, while about 41.67 percent had visited one to five times and 2.08 percent had visited more than five times. Some of the reasons cited for not using the Wellness Center were not needing to or not thinking it was useful.

Singh frequents the Wellness Center for her meetings, as well as just to grab tea and snacks. Since it opened in 2016, she has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who use it. “This school year, especially, I’ve heard more people talking about wanting to go see the counselors in the Wellness Center or at least talk to them and know that that’s an option,” she said.

According to Singh and the Wellness Coordinators, the number of people using the Wellness Center has steadily increased each year since its opening. Wellness Coordinator Genavae Dixon hopes to eventually reach the entire student body. “I think we could always have more students here,” Dixon said. “I think that we want all 2,000 students to at some point walk in the Wellness Center and feel safe doing so.”

SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LITERACY AND FUNCTIONALITY

Under different forms and names, social-emotional learning (SEL) programs at Gunn have evolved and changed in response to student feedback. Currently, Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality (SELF) is a district- mandated program aimed not only towards improving wellness but also helping students develop soft skills and connections with adult mentors.

Some students have argued against the value and impact of SELF. “It’s boring, and I personally just haven’t gotten anything out of it, especially last year and the first semester of this year,” the same anonymous student said. They have not attended SELF this semester, citing its ineffectiveness as the reason for doing so.

SEL Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) Courtney Carlomagno believes that SELF will become more accepted by the student population in the future. “It’s a big change, and every change takes adjustment,” she said. “I also think right now it’s hard that only two grade levels are in it, and it’s not all four years yet. Freshmen and sophomores see juniors and seniors having free time or choice time in Flex, and that’s been difficult.”

Many of the complaints against SELF are also related to time commitment and stress levels. Carlomagno wishes to emphasize how the goal of SELF is to help students develop social skills while concurrently promoting their wellness. This additional curriculum makes it different from academic classes. “Social-emotional learning is about the development of soft skills: learning how to communicate, learning how to problem solve, learning how to work in groups,” Carlomagno said. “It’s kind of like the hidden curriculum so, yes, there is a wellness piece, but I think it’s important to note that SEL is really more skill-based, and it’s about learning how to interact with the world around you.”

Like Sources of Strength, SELF also aims to connect students to adult help. SELF mentors are currently set to stay with the same cohort group for all four years, establishing a secure mentor-student relationship. So far, SELF survey results have shown this to be effective. “What [TOSA Tara Firenzi] and I like the most is that the data shows that students are identifying as being more or as connected to their SELF mentor as their regular teachers,” Carlomagno said. “That’s really the biggest deal to us, because they see [their SELF mentors] once a week versus their other teachers, which they see three times a week.”

Overall, the hope is that SELF will continue to positively influence student wellness at Gunn.

OVERALL IMPACT

From national training programs to district-mandated classes, wellness initiatives have had varying impacts on the student body. While some may be more effective than others, Carlomagno believes that any positive influence is progress. “I think we have a lot of cool, different wellness offerings,” she said. “Even for the ones with 200 kids versus the ones with 30 kids—however many kids we’re touching—we’re making a difference for at least a handful of those kids.”

Despite the impact Singh has witnessed from working on wellness for four years, she still finds students who don’t believe in the benefit of the initiatives. “I’ve heard a lot of comments like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to do anything,’ or ‘You’re wasting money,’” she said. “I think that this just comes from lack of awareness. People don’t realize that everyone has mental health; it’s just on a spectrum.”

Singh also believes that it is important to remember that wellness initiatives aim to help both students and the community. “It’s unfortunate when there is pushback, because we’re really trying to spread positivity and awareness,” she said. “It’s coming from the best place possible: just caring about our fellow peers and caring about the teachers and community as a whole.”

If you are worried about yourself or a friend, to be directed to professional help, contact:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Life- line: 1-800-273-8255, 24/7 access to trained counselors
  • School counselor/psychologist
  • Your doctor
  • suicidepreventionlifeline.org and click “Get Help” for yourself or for a friend
  • If the threat is immediate, call 911
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In the pursuit of wellness: Are we making a difference?