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How Forsyth Central is combating students' mental health issues with mindfulness
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Forsyth Central High School students relax during a mindfulness breathing session on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, at the school's new Wellness Center. - photo by Brian Paglia

“Breathe into your belly.”

Karen Cole, Forsyth Central High School’s new wellness coach, was leading a group of seven students through a mindfulness exercise. She read from a script as the students lay on mats in a dark classroom on the school’s west campus. Two diffusers sent aromatic mist into the air. Ambient music played in the background. The students’ eyes were closed and bodies still as Cole directed them to focus on different body parts, from their toes to their hands to their eyebrows in a rhythmic tone.

It was a Monday afternoon during the school’s new “power hour,” an initiative to give students longer lunch periods with more freedom three times a week to catch up on homework or just relax, and the noise of students bustling around penetrated the stillness of the room, but just barely. Most of the 20-minute session was quiet and tranquil.

“I think we forget how powerful we are,” Cole said. “And just breathing alone is a powerful tool that we always carry with us.”

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Longtime Forsyth Central High School special education teacher Karen Cole transitioned into a new role as the school's first-ever wellness coach. - photo by Brian Paglia

Cole’s mindful movement sessions are the centerpiece of Central’s new Wellness Center, a comprehensive space of offices and meeting areas that pull together the school’s student support staff to better focus on students’ mental health.

The converted office suite on the school’s west campus now houses an assistant principal, social worker, student advocacy specialist, graduation coach, student support administrator and Cole. There are private rooms for visiting therapists to meet with students. The in-school suspension room was transformed into a space called “The Well,” where technological devices are prohibited and bean bag chairs are the preferred mode of seating.

“It’s like you’re going to replenish yourself,” Central principal Mitch Young said.

Cole first introduced the idea of school-wide mindfulness to Young five years ago when he arrived at the school. Cole had taught special education for 25 years, including the last 15 at Central. She dealt with students with emotional and behavior disorders, “the most challenging group of students,” Young said, and she used many of the same methods she had learned and incorporated into her own life to deal with anxiety and depression to help her students: breathing, gratitude journals, positive reinforcement.

“Just having a basic belief in yourself that they were relevant as people and that they were capable of doing anything that they wanted to do,” Cole said, “especially be successful in school.”

Young initially rebuffed the idea, but he was forced to reconsider after an increasing number of the school’s students were in states of emergency. Through Signs of Suicide, an anonymous survey program, Central found its freshmen class had a higher rate of depression than the national average. The school did further research that found that even students plugged into clubs, athletic teams and the STEM academy were showing signs of it too.

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A diffuser sends scented mist into the air during a mindfulness breathing session at Forsyth Central High School's new Wellness Center on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. - photo by Brian Paglia

So last year, Young went back to Cole and asked her to be the school’s first-ever wellness coach, to bring the coping methods she was using with her students and share them with the rest of the school’s population. Young talked to the school district about creating the position and was given full support, along with a model for the wellness center to emulate in Marietta High School. Young and Cole visited the school’s facility in February and brought back ideas.

Central then got to work on creating its own. School district staff gutted an old lobby and resurfaced the floors for the wellness studio. Browns Bridge Church donated furniture for meeting areas. The Forsyth Central Alumni Association donated $5,000, and another individual member donated an additional $1,000. United Way of Forsyth County committed to paying for therapy sessions for students who couldn't afford it.

Central first introduced the center to students through voluntary visits from freshman P.E. classes, and teachers were encouraged to bring their classes.

Five weeks into the school year, Central began its “power hour” lunch initiative on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, and Cole opened up the wellness studio for voluntary 20-minute mindfulness breathing sessions for any student.

The initial response?

“Curiosity,” Cole said.

But the sessions have caught on. Cole has several students who regularly participate. During a 16-day stretch before the Thanksgiving break, Cole had 596 total kids attend a session.

“(That) tells me there’s a need that’s out there,” Young said, “and a need that she’s meeting.”

Young said they hope to add more amenities to the Wellness Center in the future, like massage chairs, and the school is curious to see how the facility impacts its data on students’ mental health.

For now, anecdotal evidence will have to suffice, like that Monday session. At the end, Cole guided the six students out of their relaxed state, directing them to wiggle their toes, turn over on their side, then sit up and open their eyes.

“So how was it?” Cole asked.

“Really good,” said one student.

“Good,” Cole said.