Rocky has taken the next step in its commitment to mental health in the form of a therapy dog named Bella.
Bella is an 11-year-old mutt owned by school social worker Tricia VanHorssen. “A couple years ago, I talked to Mr. Woodall about getting a therapy dog in the school, and he was very supportive,” VanHorssen said. “So we found out what I’d need to go do to get her certified…and now [Bella] can be an official therapy dog.”
Bella’s purpose, like many of the mental health oriented additions at Rocky, is to help students relieve stress. “There’s so much research behind using therapy dogs to help decrease stress and anxiety,” VanHorssen commented. “I work with a lot of students with emotional issues and mental health issues and she’s just a support.”
The integration of a therapy dog into the Lobo community is but a single part of a larger initiative. Since the opening of the Wellness Center in early 2016, mental health assistance has been a large part of Rocky’s commitment to students’ success. “We have been concerned over the past few years with the increasing number of students that are struggling with mental health issues,” said Principal Craig Woodall. Vanhorssen concurred, adding that stress on students has been on the rise since she started at Rocky 10 years ago. She believes that the increased stress levels are resultant of the integration of social media into our lives, saying that students are anxious about what will “pop up on their phones” and can’t escape the pressure.
After the addition of Wellness Center and Bella, the mental health staff are looking towards the future of stress relief at Rocky. Vanhorssen says that, while most stressors in a teen’s life come from the non-school related sources, Rocky’s goal is to put stress relieving elements in individual classrooms. Some of these elements are already popping up in classrooms, like aromatherapy and softer lighting.
“[Bella and I] have been going to a lot of classrooms,” Vanhorssen said, “she’s schoolwide.” She also noted the effect Bella has on students as a whole; students behaving themselves better, going out of their way to pet her in the hall, and sometimes even sitting down and reading to her.
While the ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for external wellness resources and have students relieve anxiety in the classroom, Bella has become an integral part of Rocky’s mental wellness program and iconic among students and staff. Woodall added, “I think she has already had a positive impact with many students.”