DES MOINES, Iowa — Tucked in the back of the Harding Middle School building is a small space of seclusion but offering students a bit of sanctuary. “Self-awareness is a really big thing for me. It is important to feel what your feeling but sometimes it is not necessary to act on that or say what you feel you need to say,” said Julian Seay who serves as the school’s community coordinator.

Eigth grade student Day Chit finds the room to be a safe space. “Sometimes in the morning I come in here and meditate.”

A once empty space is now fueling student minds like Chit this school year. “This is a really good place to enjoy time to yourself and find space for yourself,” said Chit.

It is called “Healthy Island,” and it was created this school year with the help of students and Julian Seay. “I felt we could have therapeutic spaces where the kids could at least find a space to breath and just relax,” said Seay.

Seay joined the district as one of the newly created community school coordinators when the district eliminated school resource officers in 2021. Seay said, “I knew we were lacking the ability to have therapists in the schools because there just is not enough anymore.”

A nationwide psychiatrist shortage is leaving kids and adults with less mental health help. In fact according to a recent University of Michigan behavioral health study Iowa ranks 9th worst in the country with just under 8 providers per 100,000 residents. Seay said, “I cannot imagine what it is like to be a kid nowadays when you can open your phone and there’s an opportunity for you to compare your life against somebody else.”

The brightly lit nature backdrop reminds struggling students to take a deep breath with the words “BREATHE,” in glowing neon letters against a grassy looking wall backdrop. It is the perfect place for Chit to let go of the days stressors. “I meditate in here often. Sometimes I do some prayers here every now and then,” Chit said.

Day is working on a beautiful and colorful mural. It provides intricate art open to a viewers interpretation. Day said, “When kids come here and they see this they do enjoy it so I feel it can spread happiness and enjoyment to others.”

Communicating with kids in Des Moines is a tall task. There are over 100 languages spoken throughout the Des Moines Public Schools district. In the hallways at Harding there are over thirty but it’s the silence in this room that speaks volumes. Day said, “Learning yourself and finding a way to become surrounded by yourself is one of the best ways to grow as yourself.’

The room is always open during school hours. “I need to find ways to become a better version of myself. Everyday I want to find a way to improve little by little even if it is just a small portion,” said Day.

Its impact won’t show up in a syllabus but may be needed now more than ever. Day said, “This place, I’ve learned a lot of stuff in this place.”

Healthy Island was provided in partnership with the local non-profit B-Well Foundation. School officials are always thinking of amenities to add to the room for students who may have reached certain academic milestones.