UTAH (ABC4) – Sometimes, we all just need a little bit of a break.

That’s what a recent study coming out of Brigham Young University is finding after its survey of nearly 950 respondents at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs. 

In 2020, just before the pandemic shut the world down, Westlake High School introduced its wellness center, a soothing space for students to get away from the stress of the world and relax. While students weren’t able to take full advantage of the room right away when lessons returned to the classroom in person, students were invited for hot cocoa, calming tea, and snacks at the center. 

After gathering responses from 752 students, 124 parents, and 69 high school staff members, found the more students used the wellness center the more likely it was perceived it helped them succeed in school with good grades.

“It’s a place where kids can come and get nourished physically, emotionally, and socially,” said the study’s co-author and BYU education professor Paul Caldarella. “And if we’re not addressing students’ social, emotional, and behavioral struggles in school, then they’re not going to do well academically, either.”

The wellness center allowed students 20 minutes a day to put their minds at ease using comfort items such as weighted blankets and lavender-scented teddy bears. With miniature zen gardens, puzzles, and coloring books, students could also focus their attention away from everyday stress and on one simple task instead. What proved most popular and successful in the wellness center however was the sights and sounds of nature on smart displays, giving students an opportunity to simply decompress and relax.

Of course, the students aren’t in the Wellness Center alone. Overseeing the center was a counselor with a bachelor’s degree in social work and experience working in a psychiatric hospital. She was there to listen to students’ concerns, providing them with a trusted adult and a safe space to unload weights on their shoulders.

The counselor proved to be crucial to the center’s success by gauging the level of distress in students and being able to refer students to additional professional care if needed.

“We heard many stories from the staff about how the school’s increased sensitivity to student distress has helped,” Caldarella said. “In one incident, a student who came to the wellness center shared a plan to harm themselves with the counselor, and the center was able to prevent the suicide. So, who knows how many lives it’s really saved? And my belief is that if you can save one life through the wellness center, it’s well worth the resources you put into it.”

(Photo courtesy of BYU; August 12, 2022 Photography by Nate Edwards/BYU © BYU PHOTO 2022 All Rights Reserved)

Wellness centers like the one found at Westlake High School were born from a desire to prevent suicide among teenagers. According to the Utah Department of Health, in 2020, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns in adolescents aged 10 to 17 and in young adults aged 18 to 24. Overall, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for all Utahns.

A Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Utah Department of Health in 2019, showed 36.7% of Utah high school students felt sad or hopeless. Even more concerning, 22.3% were seriously considering attempting suicide, while 9.3% had already attempted suicide one or more times. 

So what is leading Utah teens to the brink? According to the study published by BYU, the answer is stress.

Teens often carry the stress from academic pressure, societal pressure, and even pressure from their home lives. The BYU study outlines students may feel stress from disagreements and arguments between their parents. It could come from studying something that is a little difficult to understand in school. Or it could come from just trying to fit in at a school. 

According to the survey, minoritized students – whether due to race, religion, sexuality, or gender identity – saw more improvements in their academic success than other students. Bullying is believed to have led to the tragic deaths of two Utah students within the last year. As many of these students don’t meet the “status quo,” the BYU study points out their life suffers both in the classroom and at home.  

Finding a safe space to avoid hostile environments and providing students a place where they can cope with their emotions before returning to class and where they can enjoy learning can help lower suicidal thoughts. The wellness center counselors can help students with coping mechanisms such as relaxation techniques and social skills. The hope is to help students by giving them the tools they need to self-manage their distress.

“We expect students to manage their own emotional health but don’t teach them how or give them the space they need to do so,” said co-author Jennifer Bitton, who helped found the wellness center as the assistant principal at Westlake High. “The wellness center has normalized discussions surrounding mental health. Students are no longer going home, hiding in bathrooms, or hallways when they need a break – they understand that everyone has bad days, and the wellness center is there for them to use.”

The resources needed to run a successful wellness center are minimal, needing only a classroom, a few sensory supplies, and a counselor. Paul Caldarella, Bitton, and their fellow researchers are hoping their study’s findings will springboard more research and inspire more schools to implement them on their campuses. 

“In a perfect world, schools would take this concept and expand it beyond one room, to bring calm, caring, and a sense of civility to the entire school,” said Caldarella. “But in the meantime, wellness centers can really help decrease the significant stressors that students are obviously facing.” 

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help can be found by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.