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Westlake Wellness Center: Meeting Needs Far Beyond Academics

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 druggie/stoners, emo/goth kids, the loners, the kids who love anime, the FFA kids?

High schools contain so many different students who like different things, yet they’re all part of one school. I have had the privilege of walking the halls of a high school, Monday-Friday, for the past 26 years: twenty of those years as a teacher and the last six as an assistant principal. I have seen education morph over these years, but the one thing that stayed constant were the students walking through those doors year after year.

This year, at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, Utah, has been a year unlike any other I have experienced in education. It started off as you would imagine, a regular school year beginning. Students exuding excitement to be back with friends, football games, homecoming, and part of 'Thunder Nation'. What many didn’t notice, however, were the increasing number of students silently struggling. Students were spending more time in the counseling office and less time in class. Students who seemed to be unable to cope with everyday life. They weren’t keeping up with school work and often expressed crippling depression and anxiety as the reasons. I knew that as one of the school leaders, I needed to do something to help these students.

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 students actual strategies they could use to deal with their anxiety and stress? I started my research. My motivations changed, however, on the last Friday of October. I got a call that no school administrator ever wants to receive…one of our students suddenly passed. 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 committed 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 how to reach out when they felt they couldn’t.