‘Schools can do more’: Desert Hills High becomes first in district to offer mental health ‘wellness room’

ST. GEORGE — Following the deaths of two Desert Hills High School students by suicide – one of whom was still attending the school at the time – principal Justin Keate felt a profound urge to do something to help, to be proactive rather than reactive, and to create a space for students to learn about stress responses and coping techniques for things like anxiety and depression.

Desert Hills High School was the first high school in the Washington County School District to have a wellness room, St. George, Utah, Oct. 14, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

After consulting with professionals, planning and community collaboration, Desert Hills became the first high school in the Washington County School District to have a full-functioning wellness room, Keate told St. George News

“Our wellness room really came about because some of the mental health struggles we saw piling up with students: suicide, anxieties, depression and just these very real emotions and heavy social-emotional struggles and mental health concerns kids were dealing with,” Keate said. “When they’re struggling that much and sitting in class, it’s really difficult for them to focus or have any kind of learning or education going on.”

In addition to utilizing a $500 grant, the wellness room was created through community partnerships and collaborative efforts. The school received donations from Julia Childs Design and the Skin Institute and features select artwork from students. Some of their anxiety relieving aids include a weighted blanket, coloring books, Zen boards, stress balls and other sensory gadgets. The room is void of screens or any other digital distractions; they even utilize 10-minute sand timers.

There are two passes to the wellness room in all classrooms. A student doesn’t need to say anything to the teacher; they just take the pass and go to the wellness room. Upon entering the room, students fill out a brief survey that asks questions pertaining to their emotional state. After that, they take a sand timer.

Desert Hills High School was the first high school in the Washington County School District to have a wellness room, St. George, Utah, Oct. 14, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Stephanie Schmutz, the wellness room coach, told St. George News that a lot of times students will come in and she’ll let them know they can talk to her if they want, but they don’t have to.

“The majority of them are anxious when they come in,” she said. “You can see that. And after we work with them, give them some skill sets to use in order to work with what they’re going through, by the time they leave, their demeanor is a lot different. They feel more relaxed. They feel more calm. They feel very grateful.”

The techniques and mechanisms offered to students are based on neurology and physiology to teach students to better understand their own stress responses and, in turn. learn how to self-regulate. In order to identify how to help a student, Schmutz said she tries to help them identify what they need.

I ask them, ‘Do you feel like you need to do something with your hands?’ We have manipulatives to use to work through that. Some of them just need to be distracted for a minute, so we have them work with Zen Boards or do some coloring. Sometimes students are really in an emotional state, and I’ll give them a notebook and just have them write down their feelings. And afterwards they take it with them or they rip it up and throw it away.

On average, five to six students a day utilize the wellness room. Compared to this time last year, they’ve seen 16 more students.

In the past, Keate said, students would disappear into the bathroom or out into their cars or even leave the schoolgrounds if they were feeling overwhelmed.

“We want them here,” he said. “That’s so important. I know we’ve headed off some major issues and serious problems by what they learn here and having this in place, and that means everything to me. After you go through a few – or even one – student suicide, it shakes your school and your kids and you personally.”

Desert Hills High School Principal Justin Keate talks about a student painting in the wellness room, St. George, Utah, Oct. 14, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

One of the unexpected benefits of the wellness room has been in how students with special needs have gravitated to the room, particularly those nonverbal students who are unable to communicate how they are feeling.

“They come up here a lot,” Keate said. “I’ve had feedback from their teachers and even their parents who express how much their kids have been able to benefit from the room.”

While they are completely committed to providing a top-notch academic education, Keate said it is equally as important to make sure students are mentally well.

At the end of the day, Keate said, the wellness room is there to remind students that the school cares about them and that they matter and that “schools can do more.”

A lot of times when kids are going through that they feel like they’re the only one, or wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why am I feeling this way?’ They don’t know how to cope or how to deal with it. And it’s so important for us to say, ‘You matter. We care that you’re doing well here. We know there’s going to be struggles, and we know there’s going to be tough days, and we have a place here because you matter more than anything.’

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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