After fifth teen death on tracks, efforts toward 'safety net' press on
Leaders praise family's openness on son's mental illness
Palo Alto leaders this week expressed sympathy and appreciation to the family of 19-year-old Brian Taylor, who died on the Caltrain tracks last Friday, for publicly stating their son had been under treatment for a diagnosed mental illness.
Though deeply discouraged by the fifth teen train death in Palo Alto in eight months, school and city leaders said they would press on with an elaborate community "safety net" they have developed to identify and help troubled teens and address conditions at the tracks.
The effort, dubbed Project Safety Net, involves up to 20 local agencies in education, mental health support and track monitoring.
"We're all deeply saddened by the suicide we had this past weekend, and I commend the courage of Mrs. Taylor in being honest about her son's mental illness," school Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.
"This is a reminder of the importance of our work around the stigma of mental illness and educating our staff about signs of mental illness."
In a statement, the family of 19-year-old Brian Taylor, a bright and talented Eagle Scout, described their son's four-year struggle with mental illness, eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
"The first, unrecognized symptoms of Brian's illness were repetitive, looping thoughts during his sophomore year in high school," said the family, who lived in Palo Alto for 16 years before moving to Granite Bay.
In the two months before his death, Brian had spent most of his time at the UCLA and Stanford medical centers, where his family said he received "excellent care."
"His acute illness affected every aspect of his life," they said.
School officials were relieved in this case to halt speculation over other possible school-related causes of the tragedy.
Teen mental health is a strong focus of the "safety net" team. National research has found that up to 90 percent of suicide victims had a diagnosable mental health condition at the time they died.
Palo Alto school officials said this week they are continuing to identify students who may be struggling, and a number have been hospitalized. The school district also has organized an upcoming breakfast for mental health professionals who are lending their time to suicide-prevention efforts.
The district also has organized training sessions for teachers, staff and others in a suicide-prevention method known as QPR, which stands for "question, persuade and refer."
The two-hour training, used at Foothill College and Stanford University, teaches people to be "gatekeepers," learning to "recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade and refer someone to help."
Rob de Geus, division manager of city Recreation and Golf Services and a member of the school/city liaison committee, said the gatekeeper program and training is being extended to staff at the city's Teen Center and camp programs.
"This is a serious community issue and will take everyone working together," de Geus said.
He urged the community to utilize the Project Safety Net site, which has links to local mental health agencies and other professionals where families, teens and individuals can get help and answers to their questions. The website is at www.cityofpaloalto.org/safetynet .
The site outlines numerous education, prevention and intervention strategies, from resilience-skill building to reducing harassment to support for those who have attempted suicide.
The Palo Alto Police department continues to employ a full-time crossing guard to patrol the West Meadow Drive train crossing. The objective is to continue hiring the guard at least through the school year, de Geus said.
Hiring security isn't in the city's budget, so the police department has set up a Track Watch donation site on the Project Safety Net website. So far, about half of the $90,000 needed has been raised, he said.
Contributions can also be made through Barbara Teixeira c/o Safety Net Fund, Palo Alto Police Dept., 275 Forest Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94301.
Meanwhile, Track Watch volunteers continue to patrol the Charleston Avenue crossing, and more volunteers are needed. People can sign up at paloaltotrackwatch.weebly.com
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at email@example.com.