On Deadline: Weaving an emotional-health 'safety net' for young persons is not a new concept
The issues of adolescent stress and kids in deep personal trouble are not a new phenomena in Palo Alto, even though there is a real-time urgency to the current wave of concern sweeping through the community.
In the early 1970s, the district had created a "special problems counselor" position at each of the then-three high schools. Those positions were victims of budget cuts. One of the counselors, Phil Bliss, later founded Midpeninsula High School to be a "safety net" for bright students who didn't quite fit in the competitive atmosphere of the regular high schools. The school has evolved into other missions since Bliss's death some years ago, so Palo Alto students are doing high-wire and trapeze academics without a net, so to speak.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ann Gagnon, a local therapist/health educator, felt that high school students in particular were showing signs of stress. She approached school officials and the Palo Alto Medical Clinic and suggested creating a stress-reduction program.
She developed materials and even convinced P.E. teachers to give up one class a week to teaching meditation, the personal kind that teaches relaxation. But the core message underlying meditation/relaxation is that you have control of your feelings, and life, a power not everyone realizes they have.
A few years later a student at Palo Alto High School ended her life one weekend after going to her mother and saying she needed to talk. The mother said she was too busy right then — has ANY Palo Alto parent not said that, or something similar, more than once?
But that death triggered a series of community reactions that became part of the deep history of today's efforts to make the Palo Alto community a more caring and supportive place for young persons generally and especially those in pain or depressed.
Jim Shroyer, then principal at Paly, approached the late George Bonham, former vice president for education at the Medical Foundation, to ask if the foundation could help implement an "anti-suicide" campaign.
Bonham came down the hall to my director-of-public-affairs office and conveyed Shroyer's request.
I had mixed feelings. As a former reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times (later Peninsula Times Tribune) I had written a number of articles about suicides of young persons and anti-suicide programs. At the time the "anti-suicide" literature showed mixed results of many programs, and there was concern that while they might help some young persons they might validate suicide as an option for others.
I asked Bonham for time to think about it.
And in the morning I started writing a memo — a really bad mistake, but one I'm still glad I made.
I first asked if the key message we as adults wanted to convey to our young people in the community was, "Don't kill yourselves!"
I said the message should rather be something like: "We want you to be happy and successful by your own definition of success." I said we could ask area professionals for feedback.
Some 18 months later and after countless meetings of teachers, counselors, pediatricians, a child psychiatrist, community psychologists, parents and students, we produced an eight-part set of four-page mailings to all students at Paly, and later Gunn. The "Family LifeSkills" program is still on the Medical Foundation website, www.PAMF.org, and is getting a good number of viewings, according to Becky Beacom of the Education Division there. The materials were updated about four years ago.
The mailings covered managing anger, getting beyond blame, communications techniques, taking care of business, taking care of yourself, being a skilled negotiator and family problem-solving.
The idea was simple: If we could share commonly accepted concepts relating to positive vs. negative interactions with family members, friends and associates then it might help reduce frustration and stress within students and families.
A student/family survey earlier had shown that numerous families reported having a "serious argument" about once a week — a fight that had spillover effects into a second or third day. Our idea was that if ideas in the mailers could help families avoid every other argument then that would more than double the positive-interaction time within families. Extensive research shows that the well-being of young persons directly correlates to the degree of positive vs. negative interactions within a family — something we called "The Kalamazoo Connection" in the LifeSkills article, based on where one big study was done.
Some of those involved in the process are still around, as lasting connections were made during the development process. One parent and Paly senior were featured on a Today Show episode, and the program won a state award in Oregon when it was implemented in West Albany, a farming community, where the ideas were all news to them and merited a front-page write-up in the local paper.
While many took the messages and hints to heart, a special challenge in Palo Alto was that some students and parents felt that "we know this stuff" and could thus ignore it as old-hat information. But the key message through the series was: "Take time. Take time to be together and care for each other." One article was titled, "Take time to listen." Echoes?
A similar process to the LifeSkills effort was happening elsewhere in the creation of "developmental assets," now known locally as "Project Cornerstone." Initially it was a list of 40 personal assets in several categories, but was expanded to 41. One story was that the 41st asset stemmed from a suggestion from someone in Palo Alto.
That would not be a surprise, and I would like to know the story behind "The 41st Asset."
Meanwhile, a remarkable team assembled as Project Safety Net in Palo Alto unwittingly echoes the old "safety net" description used by the special-problems counselors and the early Midpeninsula High School.
Our challenge now, as a school district and community, is how to re-weave that net.
Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.