Pale green walls, throw rugs, and lush plants evoke the home, a safe place to retreat to during a busy school day.

There, in the newly opened Wellness Center at Collingswood High School, students can renew weary spirits and maintain social and emotional well-being through counseling or activities. Sometimes, it’s just a place to “turn their brains off and have fun.”

School officials believe the center will fill a need experienced by students everywhere — to help them deal with any emotional distress they may have had before COVID-19 that may have worsened after the return to normalcy.

Christine O’Lexey, Program Director, Collingswood High School Wellness Center. .Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

“The reality is our students are always in mental health crisis and we need to support them,” said program director and licensed clinical social worker Christine O’Lexey. “We want it to be a safe place where they feel comfortable.”

Layla Spearman, 18, a senior, said she believes many students are uncomfortable sharing their problems, not realizing that their peers may have the same problems. He spoke openly about his sophomore suicide attempt during the pandemic shutdown. He sought therapy and now counsels younger students.

“I had a favorite moment Be honest about what’s going on,” Spearman said. “It’s very important to be transparent and be willing to let people know your problems.”

Lyla Spearman, 18, and Jasmine Clerville, 19, in foreground, at Collingswood High School’s Wellness Center. Spearman said she believes many students are uncomfortable sharing their problems, not realizing that their peers may have the same problems..Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Returning to school after remote learning during the pandemic has been difficult, said Chole Wright, 18, a senior. Many Collingswood students opted for virtual education until the district fully reopened.

“We are still adjusting though [the start of] Covid was three years ago,” Wright said. “It’s been a difficult transition for me, and I’m someone who loves school. I wish this center had been here earlier.”

A 2021 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 37% of public and private school students said their mental health was not good during the pandemic. About 44% reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more.

Collingswood, a K-12 district that enrolls about 2,200 students, received a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish the center to more fully address mental health concerns that began long before the pandemic.

The district used the grant to convert an empty second-floor classroom in its media center into a wellness center. An occupational therapist helped design the space with soft, natural lighting, bean bags, hanging swing chairs and a green floor glow light. Soft-playing music gives it a spa-like vibe.

The center offers free mental health and trauma support services with social workers and a social/emotional wellness coach, nurse practitioner and behavior analyst. Referrals are available for students who need additional help.

Most students are referred to the center by teachers or staff. Walk ins are also welcome. The center is open during school hours which are extended as needed. O’Lexy says students who feel anxious at the start of the school day can stop by the center first to get over their discomfort.

In addition to counseling, the center offers structured activities to help learn skills such as relationship-building, self-regulation or stress reduction. Or students can sit at a coffee table with coloring books and crayons. Positive affirmations are posted around the room including one that says, “Feelings are like waves. We can’t stop them from coming, but we can choose which ones to surf.”

“If I had lived that freshman year when I was crying, it would have saved me the hell out of me,” said Linnea Martinsen, 18, a senior.

The center expects at least 200 students to visit in the first year District officials also want to open wellness centers for secondary and primary students.

“The pressures these kids are dealing with are so different,” O’Lexi said. “Kids today are dealing with things that we weren’t.”

Jasmine Clerville, 19, a senior, wrote a poem called “Place on Earth” to share her feelings about the center. which he read at its open house last month.

There needs to be space in the world

A place where you can raise your voice and release your burdens…

Somewhere that you can call a home

Somewhere where you are never alone…

A sanctuary to protect you from the darkness

So like a flower you will flourish and bloom

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