The death of a Gunn High School student Tuesday should prompt the community to boost suicide-prevention and mental-health programs in local schools, said Palo Altans Mary and Vic Ojakian, who lost their 21-year-old son Adam to suicide in 2004.
"Every time this happens we deal with the shock," Mary Ojakian said. "This is necessary, but that is all we do. We do not take action to prevent this from happening again.
"Suicide can be prevented -- bottom line. It is preventable but that requires a community effort. We need to start the programs that prevent this tragedy.
"Every time we tell students, 'You've got to start listening and not be kept to this code of silence.' But we get new students every year. We all need to learn, as a community, how to prevent these tragedies.
"We all need to learn 'CPR for the brain.' It exists and it can be taught. We can institutionalize this. So every year when new students come they learn that there are things they can do to help their peers," Vic Ojakian said.
"The pain hasn't actually gone away. It's gotten bigger now for all of us in the community," Mary Ojakian said.
"This sends me right back," she said. "Here I am looking at the website of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
"It's very important to recognize that this is the death of a child," she said.
"It's the death of a child like any other death -- as if this child died suddenly of an unknown heart condition. It's exactly the same. It is exactly how you think and approach and talk with each other and understand the shock, and extend concerns for the family.
"This is a very loved child, and always keep that in mind. This is not something to keep quiet. It's not something we don't talk about. We need to talk about it because that's how we feel, like any other sudden illness and death," she said.
Recalling the day she lost her son, a student at the University of California at Davis and a Paly graduate, Mary Ojakian said, "I learned that I lost my child, and that was the most important thing in the world. It was not how he died. He died.
"It's important to understand that the action of suicide itself is largely impulsive," she said. "The person who dies is very ambivalent about death. They don't necessarily want to die. They want to get out of the pain they're in, and that's why it's important that we all talk with each other because we can then recognize that somebody is experiencing pain and give them help and hope.
"It's very important to listen. Don't judge them or their family. Don't deny them their feelings. Allow it and get them help. It's OK for them to be having tough times. What isn't OK is ignoring it."
Following their son's death, Mary and Vic Ojakian, a former mayor of Palo Alto, were galvanized to investigate suicide-prevention efforts in California's public colleges and universities. Their efforts resulted in significant changes to the system. Now, they say, they are interested in addressing suicide prevention efforts in K-12 schools, starting close to home in Palo Alto.
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