CONCORD, CA (Oct. 17, 2023) — Strong mental health has taken on greater importance within educational circles, especially as the world emerges from the COVID pandemic. The pandemic brought with it increased mental health challenges for schools and the communities they serve.
Wellness subsequently became a new buzz word encompassing emotional, social and mental health and is now at the forefront of school communities across the nation.
Administrators, educators, parents and community members are eager to analyze and address the diverse and evolving needs of student well-being. In the case of Carondelet High School, school leadership took on the challenge with great gusto to create a space that elevates the virtues of personal wellness to a new level.
The new Cannon Wellness Center, with its comprehensive offerings, carries on a Carondelet legacy of nurturing the whole person. Forward-thinking Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet set forth to instill a focus on social and emotional well-being during their tenure at the school starting with its founding in 1965. Fittingly, the Cannon is located in the convent building of the Concord school’s main campus, which used to be the Sisters’ communal home.
Carondelet’s counseling team and programs have been in place and developing for more than 40 years to remove the long-held stigma associated with mental health as an issue to be hidden away.
Carondelet President Jessica Mix, Class of 1999, notes “It’s not just about the physical space that’s been created, but the idea of bringing wellness and the importance of mental health out front—out of the shadows where counseling services were previously tucked away.
“The Cannon not only provides a place for students to get the care they need during moments of crisis. It’s also a space for students to check in with themselves, make connections with other students, meditate and reset, engage socially during lunch and participate in group activities.”
“All discussions and programmatic decisions in academics, athletics and other areas of student life are viewed through the lens of wellness and student support,” Mix added.
Director of Wellness Counseling Stacie Besagno echoed those sentiments. “It is right in line with our mission. There was a heightened awareness coming out of COVID that there were increased and different mental health needs.”
The message to students, she noted, is to “prioritize self care, and know that you have a community of support around you.”
A family paying forward
The impetus for making the Center a reality was aided substantially by generous lead donors Anne and Scott Cannon whose daughter is a recent Carondelet grad who benefited greatly from the support of the school administration and the Counseling Center staff during her time there.
Carondelet allowed their daughter to take time for herself and focus on her health and her academic pursuits. Each one impacts and reinforces the other and striking a balance between the two is an essential part of Carondelet’s student-centric approach to education.
The family is passionate about providing all students the tools and resources to manage their mental health and their academic progress, particularly in the face of ever-increasing pressures around higher education, career paths, relationships and independence.
The goal of providing seed funding to ignite this initiative by the family is to ensure all gifts to the Cannon have a multiplier effect and enable current and future students to receive the same kind of support their daughter did.
Convent takes on new role
The multi-use space in the former convent was repurposed with positive, affirming messages dotting the walls and intentionally conceived to serve the needs of the individual and recognize the value of group experience.
The Cannon includes designated reset rooms for students needing short term emotional support, like the cozy Hideout, and areas like the Kitchen Sync where students gather to share meals and express their creativity through art in a space nuns formerly prepared their meals.
“Students’ social and emotional health go hand in hand with their academic and physical development,” said Besagno of the holistic approach that is weaved into the center’s programming and activities. “This is about providing intentional space for positive mental health.”
Students acquire various tools and learn techniques to manage stress and self-regulate as individuals or in a group setting during the morning breaks, lunch hours and after school. Activities like journaling and rock paintings are outlets available for students to explore.
Along with warm and welcoming counseling offices, the design plans incorporate private rooms that allow students to take telehealth appointments with off-site physicians and counselors in a protective space during the school day.
“It’s a space that has been welcomed with open arms by the students, and parents have embraced the Cannon, too,” Mix said.
Ahead of this school year starting, efforts were made to get the Center’s Gratitude Garden, an adjacent outdoor space for personal reflection, completed “so it works in tandem with the inside features.”
“The center settles them and grounds them during the day, and that is something our students have really jumped into this fall,” she added.
Center gets high marks
The safety of the Wellness space—every nook and cranny is designed for the students to seek out—drew 17-year-old senior Anne Medina.
She initially scoped out the center as a junior. It’s only been through the opening days of her senior year, when things got a little crazier, that she really began to appreciate the value of the safe environment. It is a place she can go to feel comfortable and find “my happiness.”
And recognizing that the importance of taking care of her mental health goes hand in hand with her academic pursuits, Medina feels certain that takeaways from the center will mean as much to her as anything she will gain in a classroom.
“I absolutely love it,” Medina said.
Fellow senior Sarah Chisholm, 17, wholeheartedly agrees. She recalled when she first arrived at Carondelet and the support that members of the senior class at that time were providing, absent the comfortable surroundings of the present-day Cannon.
Now a member of the upper class Senior Peer Counseling program, the Cannon has inspired Chisholm to do even more as a guide for those she has been entrusted to help start their journey at Carondelet. “Everyone knows it’s a safe space,” said Chisholm. “It’s an important place to assist the freshmen making their transition from junior high to high school.”
The peer counseling program has existed at Carondelet for over 25 years. It is a leadership program where trained seniors serve as mentors for the freshman class. The Cannon Wellness Center now provides a home base for the senior peer counselors to meet with their freshman groups throughout the school year.
Knowledge is power, and services and offerings afforded through the center were brought out to the school’s quad in mid-September as part of a week of daily activities related to Suicide Prevention Month and bolstering mental health awareness.
To further connect the center’s offerings to the classroom, the Carondelet wellness counselors are available and eager to assist teachers in addressing relevant mental health and wellness topics including offering class visits and presentations to students.
“The focus on mental health and wellness is critical to supporting overall student health and success, and will continue to be a priority as we prepare students for a world beyond Carondelet,” Besagno said.
David Scholz is back in journalism as a freelance writer and photographer after nearly two decades in education. Prior to moving into teaching in 2000, he worked as a full-time journalist since 1988 for rural community and small daily newspapers in Central Ohio and Northern Nevada, and later in California with The Business Journal in Fresno and dailies in the Bay Area, including The Oakland Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle. More recently Scholz also worked in an editing, writing, and page layout role with the Rossmoor News.