In the last three weeks, two significant yet relatively unnoticed mindset shifts have occurred that may have major positive impacts on the social and emotional environment for our kids.
First, the two mental health professionals who have been the key communicators with the public and advisers to school officials on teen depression and suicide since the first suicide contagion in 2009 have decidedly changed their message.
Stanford adolescent psychiatrist Shashank Joshi and Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician and internist Meg Durbin, co-founders of an organization formed to address local adolescent depression called the HEARD Alliance, have now openly acknowledged that the environmental stresses facing teens in achievement-oriented Palo Alto are among many "co-factors" that can increase the risk of severe depression and suicide.
Durbin first publicly used the term "co-factors" Jan. 29 on the KQED Forum radio show less than a week after the most recent suicide of a Gunn senior.
Her message was clear: Teen depression, stress and anxiety must be "contextualized" in the environment they live in, and while the schools should not be blamed, some school practices and the community culture are creating unhealthy stressors. When combined with natural adolescent impulsivity, this "can be a fairly concerning brew," she said.
Dr. Joshi, who serves as the school district's consulting psychiatrist and who has consistently steered away from raising school-climate issues when communicating about teen depression and suicides, made an even stronger statement at last week's school-board meeting.
"Environmental factors must be examined closely and are often highly influential in any student's well-being. Peer, social, family, school and other influences such as living in a high-achieving culture where a teen's self-worth is perceived to be measured solely in terms of grades, sports, music performance or elite college acceptance can increase the risk of severe psychological distress on individuals, depending on the situation. These environmental influences can also be quite protective if they are positive or supportive in nature," Joshi said.
These statements are overdue and come in response to increasing parent frustration over the lack of leadership in articulating how chronic stress in a teen's life can lead to depression and despair. In a powerful opinion piece in today's Weekly, Palo Alto child psychiatrist Maria Daehler offers additional valuable perspective on the relationship between stress, sleep deprivation and depression.
As medical experts are changing their message, Superintendent Max McGee is taking bold action to change practices that are among the "co-factors" to which Durbin refers.
McGee and Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann are fast-tracking the implementation of block schedules at Gunn, a widely adopted high school practice that has been in place for several years at Paly, where classes meet for longer periods fewer times a week.
Another priority is elimination of weighted grading at Gunn to remove the grade incentive of enrolling in honors classes, where receiving an A counts more than 4.0 in calculating grade-point averages.
Requirements of a more careful review of student workloads when taking multiple AP classes, looking at limiting the number of AP classes, are also on McGee's agenda.
And a consultant study now underway will soon provide data on the inconsistencies in teaching methods, expectations and grading practices in classes identical in name, one of the most commonly expressed stress inducements among high school students.
Perhaps most significant, however, is McGee's determination to fully implement the homework policies adopted by the school board after a long, inclusive process in 2012. The policies have been widely ignored by teachers, to the frustration of students and parents, and McGee has issued a detailed four-page memo to all faculty, clearly and firmly directing that they be followed.
The actions of Durbin, Joshi and McGee are the kinds of steps that the community has been asking for, and we are grateful that these leaders are listening and acting with urgency.
There is much more work to be done, but tangible reforms, accountability for following district policy and a change in our mental health vocabulary are critical steps forward.