Wellness Centers 

The Next Step in Making Mental Health Resources More Accessible

By Tanisha Mehta and Salma Metwally 

What is a Wellness Center?

 Wellness centers are crucial components of mental health support for people of all ages, especially for adolescents who are navigating a very transformative and confusing time in their lives. They can be a place to find mental health support or simply wind down and find a moment to relax. The Palo Alto Unified School District defines wellness centers as “safe, supportive environments…where [people] can go to discuss a variety of issues from depression, grief, self-esteem, family life, and stress to dating violence, sexual identity, and health needs.” Notice that these issues aren’t limited to mental illness. This is because any individual can suffer from mental health challenges and psychological distress, for which they deserve help and support. The purpose of wellness centers is to support people with a wide array of issues that may benefit from some form of guidance or encouragement. This makes wellness centers more accessible and comfortable.

Generally, wellness centers provide brief therapy sessions with licensed professionals, access to hotlines, peer support and mentoring, social activities to forge connections and combat feelings of loneliness, and psychoeducation. In some cases, after evaluating a person's needs and deeming it necessary, wellness centers may refer them to outside medical or clinical support.

What makes it a necessity for the youth community?

Typically, accessing traditional mental health services is a real challenge for many, preceded by a long stay on a waitlist and accompanied by a hefty price tag. For kids and teens, especially those living in disadvantaged households,…even more difficult. Yet there is a beacon of hope for these youth. Wellness centers. Wellness centers, particularly dedicated to adolescents, primarily receive outside funding (most often from the government itself). As a result, the services they offer are essentially free. That, on its own, is a massive benefit.

Sometimes, talking to an adult or a professional can be intimidating, but the atmosphere in wellness centers is inviting due to the presence of like-minded peers, the presence of peer support, and lighthearted social activities. A study by the L.A. Trust for Children’s Health correlated visits to school wellness centers with higher attendance. Wellness centers are also a great way to find resources for issues that don’t need long-term support or don’t rise to the clinical level. Overall, these centers are a great, non-judgmental zone for youth who need mental health support or simply a way to wind down and take a mental break.

Imagine, for a second, that you are a teen struggling with your mental health, living in a poor neighborhood, and dealing with unstable conditions at home. Who would you turn to? Who would you talk to? If not your home, what would your safe space be? Wellness centers. A place where you could get some rest, take a shower, do your laundry, eat some food, or listen to some music. A place where you can talk freely and find people who will listen. A place where you could meet and interact with kids just like you: people who are struggling, but are willing and hoping to heal and find support. A place that would make you truly feel cared for and understood, instead of alone.

Crystal Calhoun, elder leader at the San José Unified Equity Coalition, left, Viviana Rodriguez, Peer Support Specialist at the Downtown Youth Wellness Center, right

The Downtown Youth Wellness Center 

A couple months ago, Tanisha, our founder, had the pleasure of visiting the Downtown Youth Wellness Center in San Jose. Recently established, the center was made possible through a partnership between the Alum Rock Counseling Center (ARCC) and Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services. It is a youth (12 to 25 years of age) space for activities, learning, socializing, and just being. The wellness center provides a variety of services for youth, including peer support and mentoring, social activities, psychoeducational activities, employment and education support, referrals to outside clinical and medical support, behavioral health services, and a safe, youth-friendly space. It also hosts weekly wellness groups like Círculo (an opportunity to share community with peers and check in without judgment), Music + Self Care (a night of music and community), Cafe Lounge Night, (open mic activities such as singing and poetry), Art & Vibe (a chance to create art freely or through a guided session), and Game Night (games like table tennis, Jenga, and video games on a Nintendo Switch). 

The facility itself is spectacular, with rooms dedicated to work, relaxation, play, and privacy; it also includes a kitchen, laundry room, fully-equipped bathrooms, and even an outdoor basketball court. Check out the pictures below for a glimpse of the fantastic environment these wellness centers provide for youth.

Resources are lacking: Wellness centers are crucial but overlooked

Despite the immense benefits provided by wellness centers, they are both underfunded and neglected. Most people reading this piece have probably never even heard of a wellness center before. The awareness surrounding community mental health support is truly lacking, leading to a shortage of quality healthcare as a whole. According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, 42% of Americans seeking mental healthcare were limited by the cost, needing to access a community center as opposed to a trained professional, a wellness center, or a mental health center, especially if they came from a lower socioeconomic background. 

In 2021, California passed a budget that would invest in youth behavioral and mental health, as well as wellness centers and resources in schools; however, this funding for students’ mental health will not be renewed in coming years, making it immensely limited and spreading the state’s resources relatively thin. Correspondingly, many government-funded schools continue to lack wellness centers as part of their facilities, further demonstrating how mental health resources and services continue to remain undervalued by local school districts, administrators, and the state itself.

What you can do

You can spread awareness and educate others on wellness centers, so those struggling with their mental health might know where to turn to and where to look for help. Join and get involved in organizations like the San Jose Unified Equity Coalition, a coalition of parents, educators, students, and community members who are currently advocating for the establishment of more wellness centers, so students can access the quality mental health care and support they deserve. Visit and support your local wellness center. Some local centers include Allcove, in Palo Alto, The Q Corner, in San Jose, and of course, your own school’s wellness center. You can talk to your school’s administration or board about increasing funding for student resources. If you are of voting age, you can also vote for politicians who emphasize investing in community mental health resources. Don’t wait for others to facilitate change. Be the change yourself.