'Boost anti-suicide programs,' parents urge

Mary and Vic Ojakian open their hearts to family of Gunn student, while urging community action

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.

The Ojakians said their "hearts go out to the parents" of JP Blanchard and that every such suicide brings back their own experience, as well as impacting virtually everyone in the school and broader community.

"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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Posted by Theresa
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 6, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Dear Mary and Vic, my thoughts went to you and your family when I heard this news. You have done so much to bring the issue of teen/youth suicide to the attention of those who can get things done about it.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 6, 2009 at 1:33 pm

My admiration and heart goes out to Mary and Vic. Gunn High School needs to have guidance counselors on staff that have time to talk to the students. The students do not think that speaking with ACS is so easy to do and their college counselors do not have the time.- They might speak with their counselor about how they are feeling. The infrastructure of the High School needs to support the emotional well being of our students as they navigate through a very emotional, high pressured time in their lives-- it cannot all be academic and sports--

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Until they close those antediluvian grade crossings, I suggestion the posting of voluntary monitors at the three crossings during the times suicides are more likely. There must be some equivalent to the hesitation marks they could look for and some action they could take to show they cared. This would seem a worthier cause than banning cups.

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Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2009 at 2:52 pm

"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."

If counselors and teachers and parents cannot recognize the serious signs, how can we expect college age roommates/friends to grasp the signs? Aren't we just putting a guilt trip on those roommates/friends? Also, one can "suggest" going to get help, but it cannot be a requirement. Is the roommate/friend expected to call up mental health services in order for them to intervene? If so, would this be an annonymous phone call?

I guess I just don't unerstand the statement.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 6, 2009 at 3:53 pm

I extend sympathy to Mr. and Mrs. Ojakian as well as the parents who just lost a child.

I have read numerous articles in the Wall Street Journal, etc., that the privacy laws for college students (over age 18) have prevented parents from knowing about/intervening when their students were under serious pressure/risk. Perhaps these need to be modified so students can get the help they need. I am not sure if depending on roommates is the answer...

I wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Ojakian would comment on why it appears there are Palo Alto teens, specifically, committing suicide? I don't hear about Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale, Portola Valley teens doing this and I know people in those cities. Or is it we just hear about local losses and really it is anywhere and everywhere.

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Posted by Friend of the family
a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm

I so agree about the train tracks--they are like loaded guns within reach for teens who struggling and likely to give in to impulse. It's not clear what can be done, but even small measures to improve the crossings (better signage?) might help.

And better systematic awareness programs have to be provided. We know a lot about prevention and need to enact it so as to not lose our children so tragically and needlessly.

Thank you to the Ojakians for their courage and dedication in speaking up for the sake of others.

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Posted by Mom to a teenager
a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2009 at 10:36 pm

My deepest sympathy to the parents who have lost their child, I can only guess how big a pain that they are going through.
As mom to a teenager I do in my everyday see how vulnerable the teens are and the question is: are we living in a world where we want so much that we use all the time to reach the gold that we forget the time we spent on reaching this. Not only do the teens have a huge pressure in school, as parents we do want the best for them. Top rated schools, parent who are successful in Silicon Valley, sports activities also with huge pressure. The sport is not just for fun.... no we want our teens to be on the best team .. is there time for the teens to just be a teen, and do we have enough time to listen to our teens? Perhaps the time is to slow down not only economically but also mentally and perhaps we can live more simple, cause we wanted the kids in the fist place right.....just some thoughts.
A big thanks to Ojakians for sharing their knowledge.

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Posted by ACS Fan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 6, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Dear John of Barron Park,

It's important that EVERYONE be aware of the symptoms of depression and not to be afraid to ask the hard question: Are you thinking of hurting yourself? You can enter into a "no harm" contract with your friend where you promise that you will call each other before harming yourselves. It seems like a hard thing to do, but you can do it and should do it. It's so much better than dealing with the after effects and thinking that you MIGHT have been able to do something.

No one should feel guilty for another's suicide. The person had depression, a serious mental illness that must be treated by a professional. And yes, a phone call to a mental health services agency can be anonymous. Please make the call.

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Posted by Student
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 6, 2009 at 11:33 pm

As some of the older commenters here have pointed out, academics has changed through generations. I'm a student who just transfered into this area after living most of my life in another country and in my 10 years of school there I have never heard of a student related suicide in my whole network of schools. When I moved here I was surprised. People I thought would get into a good college - Someone who got close to straight As, was athletic, and musical is just another person here.

We live in an area where there is so much academic pressure from our parents and students. We live in an area of successful people who all went to big name colleges. We live in an age where a 4.0 GPA isn't good enough for most good universities and we live in a time where there are so many distractions. In Palo Alto, we're just kids trying to do what our society thinks is right and it's stressful. Perhaps this district's most positive thing is ialso its most negative thing.

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Posted by anonymous 2
a resident of another community
on May 6, 2009 at 11:36 pm

First: sincere condolences to the family and friends of all who have suffered a loss resulting from the suicide of someone close. It's an almost unbearable thing to consider, mush less experience.

Second, it's important to understand that someone who is severely clinically depressed, and suicidal, simply cannot "pull out of it". Someone in this state needs help, and needs help immediately. Depression is a _physical_ disease that impacts mental (and physical) functioning. Depression not only leads to suicide, but to untold millions of ruined lives and relationships. The real tragedy is that we know how to deal with depression, including depression's most horrific manifestation (suicide), but we have not done even a fraction of the education necessary to give depression's victims the coping skills they need to come out the other side, unscathed.

In his famous and revealing book "The Savage God", A. Alvarez points out that suicide is often experienced by the victim as a "rush to death". I think that this is a very apt description. Alvarez knew what he was talking about, because he had at one time attempted suicide. I heartily recommend Alvarez' book, for those who want more insight into the scourge of suicidal depression. Also worthy is the late novelist William Styron's book, "Darkness Visible", another powerful work, written from personal experience.

Aside from all this, depression is largely curable with proper treatment (drugs, therapy, or both), and suicide _is_ preventable.

What I would like to see is action taken even before high school (in fact, as early as grammar school), about awareness, and the signs of impending and serious depression - including curriculum design that helps children gain skill at coping with the already-identified cognitive distortions that lead to depression and anxiety.

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 7, 2009 at 2:30 am

Anonymous 2,

You and I share some similar reading matter. Both the Savage God and Darkness Visible are very effective at getting across the inner state of being suicidal. I don't recommend either book if you're feeling depressed, but there's a great deal of insight to be gained from both books. In particular, Alvarez' description of the "closed world of the suicide" makes it clear how cut off a potential suicide becomes--and how hard it is to get through to someone in that state. He gets across the appeal of suicide--which is why I *don't* recommend it to anyone in a bad emotional state. Save it for later when you want to understand.

Another book worth reading if one is trying to get a grasp on this is Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon, a comprehensive look at depression. Like the other two works, it's well written, but not always easy to read. Though it has some beautiful and wonderful sections on recovering from depression.

Sigh, this tragedy has been on my mind all day and I have no connection to anyone involved--but I just keep worrying about the kids who knew him.

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Posted by A Palo Alto parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 7, 2009 at 6:54 am

I think the educators in our community need to take a long, hard look at how they teach, and how they treat children. I've seen happy, bright, healthy children start out in the Palo Alto schools and by the time they're in middle school, many of them have be pressured and inappropriately educated to the breaking point.

Not all students are stressed out by the way they're treated and taught, but a majority of them are, and the ones who have underlying family, emotional or health issues will be the ones to suffer most and have break downs and even die. We as a community need to face the fact that the way we raise our children is not normal, and we need to stop what amounts to institutionalized child abuse.

Teachers and parents, don't be afraid to speak out and take a stand when you see it happening. And please listen to the kids. They're telling you what's going on, and it's not until they get older and get the message that they're not allowed to voice their needs that tragedy becomes possible.

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Posted by friend0
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 7, 2009 at 7:24 am

I am greatful for all of the kindness that each of us shows and expresses in their comments. One thought for our future...My belief is that we must, must, must influence/role model to our young people the importance of "kinder to each other." Much of the non-clinical depression in our schools is stimulated from the lack of love, kindness, and lack of communication between peers and teachers. I see it first hand ...some of our adults in the schools "too often" ignore the signs. Stop & Show teens that it is not acceptable to be mean to another peer.

The district and it's staff have such good intentions, but we all need to "stop the talk" and step back...Slow down, listen to all the kids..the quiet ones, as well as the vocal ones. Stop the insensitivies of one teen to another and role model more love, kindness, caring and support. It is not easy, but I truly believe that more smiles, hugs and patience with our teens will create a much healthier school environment and positive outcomes for most.

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 7, 2009 at 12:17 pm

I held off on commenting on Resident's noting that the math wars and the teen suicide were the two biggest topics because I felt things were a little raw--they still are, but since this isn't the main thread . . .

Well, anyway, we know our kids are under stress, extreme stress, in the high schools. We know that bullying is a problem and that kids are acting out. We know kids feel that they're not going to make it or succeed.

But then you get the battles over textbooks and the intense handwringing over choosing this text book or that--and how if the wrong one is picked, our children will FAIL. If your kid's not in the top math lane, s/he will never get into a good college. If s/he doesn't become strong in math, s/he is doomed to working for McDonald's.

And this anxiety filters right down to our kids. We don't have schools where being ordinary is okay.

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Posted by A Palo Alto parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 7, 2009 at 1:06 pm

I echo what you say, Ohlone, but I would say that it's not a matter of being ordinary, it's a matter of being a unique individual. Our kids need to know they each have unique skills, gifts, and a lot to offer, but they're not all going to be gifted in the same ways. Schools should nurture kids as they are and give them an education that's appropriate for their needs, abilities, and futures.

I've heard many Palo Alto kids say that their sense of selves and self esteems only started to grow once they had left Palo Alto for college. Why can't kids be themselves and flourish and grow while they're still kids here?

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Posted by anonymous 2
a resident of another community
on May 7, 2009 at 1:34 pm

"Well, anyway, we know our kids are under stress, extreme stress, in the high schools. We know that bullying is a problem and that kids are acting out. We know kids feel that they're not going to make it or succeed."

OP, first, thanks for pointing out "The Noonday Demon", as Andrew Solomon (the book's author) has himself grappled with depression, and is very heroic in his life. I think his book won a National Book Award some years back.

What you say about stress is all true, and we also know that there are deep structural problems in the way that school and family interact, with neither institution being particularly to blame.

I don't have the answers to any of this, but I do know that awareness of cognitive distortion - something we all experience, whether depressed or not - must be embedded in life and learning at much earlier ages than we have thought, prior. We also need to more effectively deploy the tolls for coping with the cognitive distortions that lead to stress. Some individuals are pre-disposed to depression; we must have better assessment tools to find those individuals, early in life, as well as giving others good coping tools for engaging stress. Hans Selye, a pioneer in the discovery of the ecology of stress brought home an early fact - i.e. that stress is largely caused by one's perception of events. Thus, the challenge becomes one of helping individuals to gain access to tools that legitimately modify thought patterns leading to stress and depression (these tools are _not_ New Age fluff, or the "Power of Positive Thinking", or any of that sort of mumbo jumbo - they are tools that come from superb double blind therapeutic studies, over the last three decades). These tools are readily available within the realm of powerful cognitive therapeutic modalities that can be used by anyone with just a little instruction, but we need more political and institutional and societal will to deploy awareness of their existence, and their use from an early age.

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 7, 2009 at 2:25 pm

palo alto parent,

I don't think we disagree. I've known a number of high-school kids here--and compared to the kids I knew in high school, there's a sweet earnestness about many of the PA kids--but there's also this sense that they think they're nothing special. I'll know by talking to them that they're often really bright kids, but you can tell that they don't think it of themselves. There's a wistful quality.

Kids at my messed-up high school felt better about themselves with half the effort--because, frankly, managing to graduate was considered a pretty decent achievement in and of itself. Funny . . .

anonymous 2,

I suspect that depression, like many things, is the flip side of what can be a very good thing. Some people, I think, are just that more sensitive to *everything*--it's harder for them to filter out the hard side of life. Sensitivity can be a power tool for connecting to and understanding others, but it can also make it hard to shrug things off. It's not an accident that artists have relatively high rates of depression, I think.

I think, in many ways, the sensitivity is there from the get-go for a lot of people. You see a definite array of temperments in babies. But I completely agree with you that there are ways to learn how to handle it, to learn how to detach enough, in some ways, so the feelings don't spiral and overwhelm the person.

The whole thing is just so sad . . .

And, yes, the Noonday Demon won the National Book Award. A good choice, perhaps, for anyone who wants to understand what depression is and how prevalent it is.

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Posted by GunnAlum
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 7, 2009 at 9:02 pm

I am so sorry for your loss Mr. and Mrs. Blanchard, there is nothing more tragic in this life than the loss of a young, bright and promising youth.

Many people question why suicide seems to be so common in our town, a town that is very affluent, generally peaceful, and has so many oppurtunities for young people. While I would never try to say I know why young Mr. JP Blanchard committed his act, if he did, I would like to shed a little light on the situation of troubled teens.

I graduated from Gunn High School recently and certainly had an emotionally turbulent four years at the school. There were many distinct times that I came way too close to committing the same act JP may have committed Tuesday. I know for a fact that I was not the only one of my peers with those thoughts, and like thoe peers that were in a similar dark place that I was, they never let any signs show that they were so trapped.

Trapped is the perfect way to describe a Palo Alto youth's psyche. At Gunn High School, above all others, there is this strange need, or intense pressure, to appear to be without flaw. this encompasses life in the classroom, athletic endeavors, and certainly what you do socially. It is almost as if you are being evaluated, or think you are being evaluated, in a fashion not dissimilar to that of a college admission officer.

The benefit to that is that Gunn kids are extraordinarily successful, but that comes at a very steep price. I never felt, not for a moment, that there was somebody I could talk to, if there was a counselor or psychologist who's sole function was not simply to fine tune applications, then I was unaware. I know that parents rarely see the problems their kids might be facing because they are so incredibly successful in all of their endeavors, there are no signs that a kid would be disturbed. One of the main problems associated with depression in my opinion, and I am certainly not implying that this was a problem facing JP, but there is a very disguised presence of drug abuse and alcoholism facing todays youths.

If there are any possible solutions I would propose, not saying that I am all-knowing whatsoever, I would say that a few things need to be done. First off, I think all PAUSD schools should have at least an annual meeting with a school psychologist to discuss NOTHING other than the childs happiness level and contentness with life.

This is something that I immediately encountered at my present University. A few of my peers noted my alcoholic behavior and occasionally depressed demeanor, and immediately referred that I speak with a school psychologist. I was compelled to meet with the psychologist and initially was quite resistant to any help, maintaining my Patented Gunn High "perfect" face. But there was a point where his expertise kicked in, and one of the best decisions in my life was to open up to him. He soon diagnosed that I have a condition called Bipolar Disorder and immediately was able to give me treatment as well as advising me of taking measures to mitigate the effect of the disorder, like consuming much less alcohol and other techniques.

I would also BEG parents and friends to always be vigilant of each other, it causes no harm WHATSOEVER to pull aside your friend or child for just a few second and let them know "If something is ever wrong, I will listen, and will not judge". People that are disturbed REALLY want you to know that something is wrong but they just can NEVER bring themselves to the actual act of initially telling you there is a problem. If they respond to your statement in a mood that might suggest that there is something wrong, even if they say there isn't, dont stop looking out for him.

We can only ask the schools to do so much. Real change has to come from troubled youth's friends, their families and their coaches. Be ever vigilant, even if the surface of the water is perfefctly calm, just stick your head under for a second, to see what lurks in the sea's vast darkness.

Thank you for reading my post, and again I would like to express my most sincere condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Blanchard. I will pray for your son, and I know for a fact that I am not alone. God bless his soul.

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Posted by Parent of 2 PAUSD students
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 8, 2009 at 1:06 am

GunnAlum, I am the parent of a graduating Gunn senior starting college this fall, and a graduating 8th grader starting HS at Gunn this fall as well.

I am paying close attention to your words, as I cherish both my children so very, very much. I have always tried to be there for them, and reminded them both again tonight that they can come to me with any problem no matter how serious or "trivial"; I will not ever judge them, and will always try to help.

My heart goes out to the Blanchard family (my child knew JP), and all the teens/young adults who might think there is no place to turn.

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 8, 2009 at 2:10 am


Thank you for posting so honestly. I'm glad you let yourself be helped.

As someone of another generation, I wonder if you could give me some thoughts on the following:

1) It doesn't sound like talking to parents was part of the equation. I mean, I know that's an ongoing thing with teens and parents, but do kids not talk to their parents or adults about these serious emotional issues? It sounds like some fellow students helped you at college, right? Any sense why parents can't be talked to?

2) When I was in school, dropping out, leaving home, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll were ways kids opted out, but suicide really was a non-issue. You guys sound so trapped--do other forms of "escape" not enter into the picture?

I guess I don't understand why suicide is thinkable, but other things, like dropping out, aren't.

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Posted by A Palo Alto parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 8, 2009 at 11:11 am

Just anecdotally, I've seen little parental pressure put on kids growing up in Palo Alto. It's definitely there, but most of the pressure I've seen and felt personally was from teachers. From Kindergarten on, the demand for academic excellence and sheer volume is very high.

More than one friend of my child describes going to school in Palo Alto as being locked in a cage or prison. The anxiety level can be debilitating, and combination of pressure, busy work and joy-killing teachers can't be overstated. The few horrible situations that end in suicide are only the tip of the iceberg. For every child who ends his own life there are hundreds who consider it, and more hundreds who are simply unhappy, unfulfilled and not listened to.

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 8, 2009 at 12:24 pm

A Palo Alto parent,

I think there's a pretty wide variety of parental pressure in this town--I've seen some postings here that make it clear that some kids are, indeed, under a lot parental pressure. I can tell from the debates online that my attitude is considered way too hippy-dippy and relaxed by some parents. And I'm really not that relaxed a parent.

And because, frankly, our home values are so tightly tied to the district's performance I think the district and its teachers do indeed feel a lot of pressure to make sure the kids perform well. There will be tremendous pressure to get good math scores for instancr because of the EDM debate.

I think, also, even when we don't directly pressure our kids the high expectations that many of us put on *ourselves* comes through loud and clear.

Our children pay attention to us--many of us went to colleges that our own kids will have a nearly impossible time getting into. Inadverdantly, the bar for achievement can be set very high for our kids.

I think people care tremendously about their kids here--but sometimes that can play out in unexpected awful ways.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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