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A Place at School Where Students Can Unload Stress and Worry

Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
Students at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology 
in San Francisco used chalk to express their feelings 
last week during an emotional health workshop.
Last week about 20 students sat in Room 466 at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, writing down all the ways that people abuse one another. Rapes and beatings topped the lists. One boy asked, “What if you just have someone tell you you’re not going to get far in life?”

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The exercise was part of a daylong effort to help students understand how typical teen-age stress over grades, prom and heartache can become paralyzing amid larger issues like violent relationships, broken homes and illegal immigration.

Galileo, a public high school in the Marina district, devoted 28 class periods to workshops on emotional health, and the staff of the school’s Wellness Center turned Galileo’s quad into an outreach event featuring music, games and prizes.

More than a third of Galileo’s 2,200 students sought help from the center last year for depression, anger, anxiety, substance abuse, grief, trauma, and physical and sexual health. During a given week, 300 to 400 Galileo students receive individual or group services, from counseling to clinic appointments.
Over the last decade, the San Francisco Unified School District has built a pioneering support network to help teenagers escape the private suffering of adolescence that erases the line between nurturing emotional health and providing an education.

“They’ll come with their stress, not ready to work on math,” said Jessica Stein Colvin, Galileo’s wellness coordinator, “and we try to prepare them to face the day.”

In a recent districtwide survey of teachers who had referred students to Wellness Centers, three-quarters reported greater academic success. Eighty-six percent said they noticed that the students had improved emotional well-being.

The demand for services is growing throughout the district. Wellness Centers at 15 of San Francisco’s high schools served more than 7,000 students last year, almost half the public high school population. Counting repeat visits, the Galileo Wellness Center handled more than 17,000 drop-ins.

“Our No. 1 need is more mental health clinicians,” Ms. Colvin said. “There is mental health therapy happening here all the time. Every single clinical space is used every hour of the day.”

Rahsaan, a 17-year-old a senior at Galileo, broke up with his girlfriend last year. He is estranged from his parents and siblings — he has lived in the Bayview district with his disabled grandfather, whom he has cared for for more than 10 years.

Last semester, he said, his grades plummeted when he hit an emotional wall.

“I was outside and one of the teachers saw me crying and they brought me down here,” Rahsaan said.

“Jessica and the other teacher stayed here after school to make sure I wasn’t going to harm myself or anything. It helped me a lot because I was, like, literally going to kick somebody’s ass and not care about the consequences.”

Ms. Colvin connected Rahsaan with a 24-hour support program in his neighborhood. This year, he has been dropping into the Wellness Center almost every day to relax or talk about things on his mind.

“We want them to understand, ‘I have these feelings but I’m safe,’ ” Ms. Colvin said. “ ‘But if something big happens in my life, I know where to go.’ ”

The San Francisco Wellness Initiative is a joint project of the district and the city’s Department of Children, Youth and their Families, and the Department of Public Health. The centers were created in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, as schools around the country focused resources on campus security and troubled youths.

Kevin Gogin, program director of the district’s School Health Programs, said the schools saw a greater opportunity.

“We took an approach that was particular to random acts of violence and decided to go broad and provide a spectrum of services so we could reach as many students as possible,” Mr. Gogin said.

Read more at the New York Times