A mother, a sister and a friend who have lost loved ones to suicide, along with a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, the Palo Alto schools superintendent, a high school principal and a city representative all spoke candidly and personally at a community event Wednesday night about the state of Palo Alto youth.
The event was organized by the school district, City of Palo Alto and youth coalition Project Safety Net in response to several recent student suicides and as part of Palo Alto's ongoing struggle to find meaningful ways large and small to create a healthier, more empathetic and open culture for teenagers both within and outside of school.
Many of the panelists urged the almost entirely adult crowd at Cubberley Community Theatre to simply be aware and truly listen to their children in more subtle, supportive ways.
"Be observant and pay attention," implored parent Kathleen Blanchard, whose son died by suicide his junior year at Gunn High School in 2009, "and what that looks like is talk less. Listen more. Listen deeply. (My son) didn't always say a lot, at least he didn't say a lot to me, and I realize in hindsight when he did speak up and say something to me, I should have been more curious. I should have stopped folding the laundry and looked at him and listened."
Gunn senior Nathan Chandra said one of the supports that was most valuable to a friend who recently died by suicide was when people listened without judgment or offering immediate solutions.
"I ask that everyone listen a lot more," Chandra said. "I'm not saying that people aren't already and I'm not trying to tell you how to parent or how to teach or anything, but I just ask that you listen and take into consideration everything that a teenager is saying regarding their problems. Sometimes it may sound petty but it may be a sign of something much more grave."
Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician Dr. Amy Heneghan admitted that she herself has had to shift her own habits as a parent to do more listening.
"There are some parents who I think with the best of intentions are very fearful of having their children fail. I'm one of them," Heneghan said. "I must say that then I have to temper my reactions because if I don't want my child to fail, I'm going to end up being very directive. ... That's not as helpful as maybe finding what is going well, letting the mistakes happen and being there as a support and, as we've heard from Kathleen, listening more than talking."
Several panelists spoke about the stigma surrounding mental health and the critical need of reducing that.
"We all have families that have mental-health issues and we very rarely talk about it," said Dr. Steve Adelsheim, a Stanford University School of Medicine child/adolescent and adult psychiatrist. "I'm allowed to ask you, 'How many people here have high blood pressure? How many people here have diabetes?' but I'm not really allowed to ask, 'How many people here have a mental illness?' -- and it's a huge problem."
Adelsheim, however, proceeded to ask the audience: "How many people here have some family member within at least one generation that has a mental-health issue?"
Hands throughout the 317-seat theater shot up.
Those hands, Blanchard said, are a sign to her that while there is much to be done to improve mental-health awareness, progress has been made.
"Here we are in 2015 but in 2009, there was a lot of fear. There was such fear that people were unable to even speak about this," Blanchard said. "And here we are five years later with a full auditorium full of interested people willing to raise their hands and indicate that they, too, know somebody who suffers (from) mental illness. That's progress."
The panelists took questions from the audience throughout the evening via note cards and email; the first, read by Superintendent Max McGee, asked that the district make more immediate changes at Palo Alto's two high schools, such as a dead week before finals, a homeroom advisory period and a moratorium on homework and projects over the holidays and some weekends.
"I know that change takes time and that it's important to get teacher and staff buy-in, but with the stakes being so high we have seen the children's lives are at stake. Why not implement real change starting right away?" the audience member asked.
McGee noted that he and principals asked that Gunn and Paly teachers make the recent President's Day weekend homework-free. McGee has also required that all district teachers follow the district's homework policy, which was adopted in 2012 but has reportedly been implemented unevenly and, at some sites, without focus. The homework policy provides time limits per grade level, with the exception of Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes, as well as recommendations on outside-of-class projects, weekend homework and winter break, which is supposed to be completely homework-free.
In response to student, parent and teacher concern about inconsistency across classes in homework load, grading practices and curriculum, the district has contracted with a research firm to study consistency at both high schools, with a report due this spring.
Gunn is also in the process of looking at alternative bell schedules, including a more forgiving block schedule under which classes meet less frequently but for longer periods of time. Gunn students currently have six or seven classes every day in roughly hour-long periods.
In response to an audience question about staging a symbolic "rebirth" of Gunn, McGee said that a similar proposal to re-paint and re-landscape the school campus is "very much in play."
Palo Alto High School Principal Kim Diorio said that she would like to see both high schools have more comprehensive health education built into their curriculum, and could do so by offering Living Skills, a course that covers topics like physical and emotional health, identity, drugs, alcohol and sex education, as a year-long class during the regular school year rather than over the summer.
"I think if we really value health of our students ... we need to be really careful about the mixed messaging we're sending when we tell our kids, 'This class isn't that important; this class is the easy class; you can do it over the summer.'"
Diorio also stressed the importance of supporting teachers during a demanding time of much change.
"Our teachers are really critical in this conversation and, for some of them, they're really hurting right now. We need to embrace them; we need to love them and we need to encourage them to keep going and (tell them) that they're doing good things," she said to a round of applause.
Other panelists hailed the many mental and physical benefits of mindfulness, which Stanford adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Shashank Joshi called a "low-cost, very high-yield kind of intervention."
"I have to say," Heneghan agreed, "the studies that show increased brain function, deceased stress, increased cognitive abilities, decreased pain. ... The truth is that it's available to everyone everyone who has a brain, everyone who has intention and everyone who is willing to put very small amount of time and effort to train their brain to quiet that mind-wandering and future-living that a lot of our teenagers just exist in."
At the prompting of the student-wellness committee formed last fall, Gunn is in the midst of looking at bringing a mindfulness program to the school, which could be incorporated into physical education classes.
One audience member asked how the information shared at Wednesday's event could be more broadly shared particularly for people who weren't there who might need to hear it more than those who were.
"I don't really have a good answer for that other than to say you can't make other people do things but you can control yourself and you can change your behavior, so you can be an advocate," answered Community Services Department Director Rob de Geus, who has co-led much of the city's work on suicide prevention through Project Safety Net.
"You think about the bell curve of technology and how there are early adopters ... you can be early adopters and be the voice for some of these changes that we're talking about," he said.
The event organizers also invited people to submit further feedback through an online survey that will be open until Friday, March 6. To take the survey, go to research.net/r/Lets_Talk_forum_2_25_15.
Though Wednesday's event was sparsely attended by students themselves, there will be another forum on youth well-being this Sunday, March, 1, dedicated to hearing from them directly. "Listening to Youth Voices" will feature a youth panel, time for students to speak on open mic and remarks by school board member Ken Dauber and City Councilman Pat Burt.
The event will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. at First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, at 1985 Louis Road, with doors opening at 4:30 p.m. There will be Mandarin and Spanish translation available. For more information, email [email protected]