Student wellness committee advocates for simple, small-scale change

At Gunn, group believes in solutions to stress that are by the students, for the students

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.

Related content:

High schools take action to ease student stress

Students to school board: It's not Gunn's fault

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4 people like this
Posted by HS parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2015 at 7:56 am

What thoughtful and wise students, WOW.

Love to see students getting a voice, they are smarter than all of us put together.

Like this comment
Posted by Erin
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 6, 2015 at 11:25 am

Great ideas! We had a block schedule at Gunn in the early-90s when I was there, and while somewhat confusing, it was nice to only focus on two or three subjects per day. Any idea why or when it changed?

Like this comment
Posted by harold a. maio
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 6, 2015 at 12:10 pm

the stigma attached to seeking mental health services
The stigma attached to seeking mental health services is the same nonsense as the stigma attached to rape. Believe it, is is real. Not believe it, it is not.

No one controls my thought with that belief.

As to the claim: Millions of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists attract more millions of people confidently seeking help.

Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor

Like this comment
Posted by nat
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2015 at 12:27 pm

What about peer counseling? This is where students volunteer to meet with other students who have problems or issues.
I think Gunn had this years ago because my nephew was a peer counselor. I haven't read anything about this in all the discussion. Does it exist at either high school currently?

6 people like this
Posted by Hahaha
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2015 at 1:14 pm

We had peer counseling and peer tutoring at Paly back in the Nineties, when I attended. I did not work then, probably will not work now.

WHY?? Peer tutors and peer counsellors talk to their friends about what they do in these sessions, and who attends them. Soon the student receiving peer counseling/tutoring is humiliated because so many other students are well-informed about their social, emotional, and learning difficulties.

Yes, it is inexpensive financially, but it certainly adds tremendously to stress and low-self-esteem.

4 people like this
Posted by HahaHa2
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 6, 2015 at 3:48 pm

Yeah, really, WHO would go to peer counseling? These are young kids - can't trust them, nor do they have the maturity to give appropriate advice. Paly has an excellent psychologist, Rita Rodriguez.

But the real issue is that the schools need to work on teacher consistency and workloads so the students don't even reach the point of having to see someone.

The Paly block schedule is superior to Gunn's. Paly has 7 periods on Monday, 3 periods Tuesday, 4 periods Wednesday, 3 periods Thursday, and 4 periods Friday. Gunn has 5-6 classes each day.

2 people like this
Posted by HS parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2015 at 3:51 pm

I would agree with Hahaaha

This was actually a Skelly reign response too and many of us commented back then that peers are not a replacement for qualified counselors.

4 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 6, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Dear Palo Alto Onliners,

My hat is completely off (in fact I'm sitting on it; it's squashed) to these caring Gunn students—Chloe Sorenson, Sarah Reich, Rose Weinmann, Cole McFaul—who, despite having to keep up with schoolwork, get through the ups and downs of adolescence (already a full-time job!), and bear up under repeated loss, are translating their Titan faith into action.

I'm heartened to hear (it's what "Save the 2,008" is saying too), that "there are a lot of things that could change just for healthier kids in general."

It's brave of these four kids, just as sophomore Martha Cabot has done, to stick their necks out for change and to make it their business to build a better school.

Marc Vincenti
Co-founder, "Save the 2,008"

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