As Palo Alto's high schools work to implement short-term changes to combat student stress, four Gunn High School students are pushing for several ideas of their own, from anonymous counseling-referral boxes to a mental health awareness campaign.
The students, who together formed a new student wellness committee last fall, said they are taking a smaller-scale approach to the complex issues that inform the current community discussion around life at Gunn -- the stigma attached to seeking mental health services, homework load, understanding stress and depression -- in the hopes that they will create more immediate yet still significant change.
"You never know what's going to help which kids, so we're taking as many steps in the right direction as we can and just trying to fix things that we think we can improve -- not so much saying it's because of the suicide but because it would create a healthier environment," sophomore Chloe Sorensen said. "I think that's the big difference -- a lot of people are saying, 'These things have to change so that kids stop killing themselves,' but there are a lot of things that could change just for healthier kids in general."
The four students -- Sorensen, juniors Sarah Reich and Cole McFaul and senior Rose Weinmann -- formed their committee in November simply out of a desire to "do something," Sorensen said. (They are also all involved in student government, and Weinmann serves as Gunn's school board representative.) They approached Principal Denise Herrmann with three solid proposals, one of which has already been implemented.
There are now two referral boxes, one in the guidance department's office and another in the student activities center, where anyone can drop off an anonymous form referring a friend to see a counselor. The form asks for the name of the person who's being referred; it's optional to include the reason. The referrer can write his or her own name if he or she wants to be involved.
"A lot of kids have friends they're worried about," Sorensen said. "For every depressed kid, there are five kids who are worried about them. A lot of them aren't comfortable enough to go talk to a counselor and say, 'This person needs help; I really want you to talk to them,' because they're either too shy or they're worried about confidentiality or they're worried they'll lose their trust."
"That's kind of our thing -- these simple, little things that I think can just make it easier," added Weinmann.
The four students also have some meatier proposals. One is to launch a mental-health awareness campaign complete with posters, a social media push and a video series; that is all currently in the works, they said. They're also looking at bringing a wellness program to Gunn called the Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES!), which in four- to five-week sessions -- often incorporated into physical education classes -- teaches about topics like nutrition, mindfulness, breathing and other stress-reducing techniques as well as conflict resolution, peer pressure and self-confidence. The Gunn and Paly student government bodies are piloting the YES! program this weekend in a 90-minute trial session.
Gunn physical education teacher Amy Anderson, who is serving as the wellness committee's teacher-adviser, said her department will be meeting with YES! program representatives "to look at additional ways to nourish healthy minds and bodies and help students gain more skills to manage stress and emotions and promote happiness and well-being."
The committee has also proposed training more Gunn students on the signs and symptoms of depression -- similar to the wellness-focused leadership training about 20 to 30 Gunn students receive each year through the school's Sources of Strength program -- and have them give presentations during Titan 101, Gunn's freshman orientation program.
Having more students be involved in and supporting their peers' mental health education touches on another desire that sparked the creation of the student wellness committee: to bring the students themselves into the conversation and decision-making process.
"It really just helps the students so much to know that it's coming from students because they feel just so much more connected to other students and they know that students have a better sense of it than adults," Sorensen said. "Because when someone from the outside is making all your decisions, it's kind of like, 'Well, you don't actually know what it's like,' and we don't have a chance to say anything."
"When we're trying to help solve problems to reduce student stress, they (students) need to be part of the decision making," Principal Denise Herrmann said.
Herrmann said she is considering each of the committee's proposals seriously, helping them to pilot and experiment before deciding what could be broadly disseminated.
"As students are coming up with ideas, I'm working hard to honor them and do the due diligence and say, 'Are they quality? Would they fit the needs of students on our campus?' And if we say yes to those things, 'How do we make it available to (a) wider group?'"
The committee is also pushing for Gunn to switch from a traditional seven-class-period day to a block schedule with fewer but longer classes meeting most days.
"I think these would be good changes regardless," Weinmann said.