Community Notebook: Palo Alto students film mental health documentary

'Unmasked' explores causes, solutions to teen suicide

During the last school year, many Palo Alto high school students were spurred to action in different ways in response to several teen deaths by suicide.

Some flocked to school board meetings to make sure their voices were heard, loud and clear, by elected officials. Others created wellness committees, organized and participated in community dialogues about teen mental health, posted words of encouragement and support on notes all over campus and spoke out in YouTube videos, blog posts and newspaper opinion pieces that quickly went viral.

And one group of students decided to make a movie.

"Unmasked," which is being released in September, is the product of 13 Gunn and Palo Alto high school students' desire to further open community conversations about mental health, with an emphasis on hope, communication and moving forward, two of the student-filmmakers explained in an interview this week.

The documentary follows two story lines – one real and one fictional. The real story line begins with Palo Alto's suicide cluster and moves toward exploring the roots of teen mental health issues. While working on the film, the student-filmmakers distributed an online survey to close to 200 of their peers with questions about what causes stress for them and feedback about what could change within the community to better support teens.

The fictional story line follows an anonymous teenage boy whose settings are unknown (which was done on purpose to make his story more universal) grieving and processing a friend's death by suicide.

"He has a really hard time processing it at first," explained co-director and rising Paly senior Christian Leong. "He really starts to question what he does and why he's doing what he does, but by the end, as we move into the section of moving forward (and) providing help, he eventually finds help and the two story lines merge."

Leong and rising Paly senior Andrew Baer, who both enjoyed filmmaking and felt compelled to somehow capture how they and other students were feeling last year, started working on the documentary in April. They soon realized they needed more help and found other film enthusiasts – some who they already knew and some who they didn't – from both Paly and Gunn to help out. The group grew to include: Gunn seniors Yui Sasajima, Lydia Sun, Tanner Kerrins and Rachel Rothburg; and Paly seniors Josh Yuen, Zack Gibson, Joseph Kao, Daniel Cottrell, Leslie Garcia, Natalie Snyder and Stas Ilyasov.

The students met every day this summer to plan and film. They interviewed a range of people, from students and teachers to Superintendent Max McGee, medical professionals, alumni and parents. They also visited Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, which is working to reduce mental health stigma, and REACH Ashland Youth Center in San Leandro, which is operated by the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency and provides free health, career and other support services to youth ages 11 to 24 years old.

The film will premiere at a free screening on Saturday, Sept. 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road. A Q&A panel with the student filmmakers and mental health experts will follow.

This screening quickly sold out, so the filmmakers are hosting a second one on Sunday, Sept. 19, at 6:30 p.m. in the El Palo Alto Room at the Mitchell Park Community Center, 3700 Middlefield Road. Tickets are limited; to register, go to

Watch a trailer for "Unmasked" here.

The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture the numerous voices, opinions and our news coverage on teen well-being. This page will continue to be updated. To view it, go to

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Like this comment
Posted by Harold A. Maio
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 13, 2015 at 9:41 am

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Get ready for cluster 3
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 13, 2015 at 11:19 am

This looks literally horrible and like it will do more harm than good by re-publicizing the cluster.

I understand the students wanting to do this -- but does no one among the responsible adults (including parents) in PAUSD (looking at you Max) think for a moment even about following the AFSP guidelines?

37 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 13, 2015 at 12:07 pm

I am very proud of these students for making a documentary. Our community's efforts to sweep suicide under the carpet and just hope it doesn't happen again isn't working. I am fearful of clusters too, but feel the only way to make progress is to be open instead of shut down conversations.

15 people like this
Posted by Too soon to tell
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 13, 2015 at 1:02 pm

It's too soon to know if this documentary is helpful or harmful. If they followed AFSP guidelines - that's a good sign. If they didn't - that could be serious (per Get Ready).

Susan's characterization that "our community's effort" is "to sweep suicide under the carpet and just hope it won't happen again" is simply inaccurate. The "community effort" she's referring to knows very well that in the midst of a cluster HOW we communicate and the stories we tell(about our students and our community's efforts) have the potential to save or risk the lives of our most vulnerable. Documentaries, media stories, public conversations (including posts) do have an impact - and it's not as simple as just "being open" and anything goes. Not at all. The AFSP guidelines that Get Ready mentions encourage talking and being open - but with a wise and informed approach to safe communications.

The good news is that hearts are united in wanting to help our community (and terrific that students are actively involved) but it IS our community's responsibility to "do this" (film, write, talk, report...) in a manner that is safe and helpful.

This documentary has been created. I'm hoping for the best. But let's put that old story - that this community does not want to talk about suicide - to rest, once and for all.

Like this comment
Posted by liar
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 13, 2015 at 1:41 pm

[Post removed.]

18 people like this
Posted by The truth
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Aug 13, 2015 at 1:58 pm

To "get ready for a cluster of 3" this documentary is just to raise awareness of this very sensitive issue. They are trying to help struggling people out there with their documentary. Before you are so quick to judge maybe you should watch it first before you make rude comments about it.

2 people like this
Posted by Gnar
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 13, 2015 at 2:06 pm

At least we're talking. Nationally, we fail miserably at addressing mental health.

It's incredibly stigmatized. Health insurance companies won't even reimburse you for therapy unless you threaten to harm yourself or others, so that they can assign a dollar amount on the cost of their inaction.

People who feel healthy, supported, heard, and appreciated for who they are don't inflict violence on themselves or others. Almost every single time someone takes his or her own life, or shoots up a school or movie theater, there is an underlying mental health issue that was not acknowledged or treated. I'm not pro-gun per se, but it should be obvious that shootings are not caused by guns, music, or video games, but by our collective inability to address the systemic problem of mental health.

In Palo Alto, where the minimum standard of success is a CEO's salary and 2 Ivy League degrees, suffering from depression or any other mental health condition reinforces the feeling of not being able to live up to an unattainable standard, and inspires shame.

We need to change our local culture, admit that it's a reality-distortion bubble, and validate and support those with mental health problems. If people knew how widespread mental health issues were, they might not feel so alone and helpless.

But we need to start talking.

4 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 13, 2015 at 2:20 pm

>In Palo Alto, where the minimum standard of success is a CEO's salary and 2 Ivy League degrees, suffering from depression or any other mental health condition reinforces the feeling of not being able to live up to an unattainable standard, and inspires shame.

What nonsense! No one has the right to demand to be at the top of the economic hill. If that is your mindset, then move to where you think you can be at the top of hill. Alternatively, you can simply accept being down the hill, somewhere, and wake up in the morning and smell the roses or wildflowers.

35 people like this
Posted by PA Mom 6111928
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2015 at 2:22 pm

PA Mom 6111928 is a registered user.

I have to agree with Susan's comments. I think all of us parents are well-intentioned. Rather than condemning these students and their documentary, especially without having seen it, is very disappointing. The fact that these teenagers willingly spent their entire summer trying to process and express their feelings about the suicides of their classmate(s) or even friend(s) is to be applauded. In this age where most rising seniors are mainly focussed on doing activities primarily aimed at getting into the best colleges such as "internships" or SAT Prep, I find it laudable that these teens want to bring their perspective. It seems as though most groups and discussions on this issue are adult/parent centered. Except for the rare occasion when there is a single teen leader on committees dealing with this issue, there have been very few teen voices heard.

I was fortunate to see the Advanced Screening of this documentary which also interviewed Dr. Joshi and parents whose children had committed suicide (many of whom attended the screening and commented favorably about the documentary) for more perspectives. In this community there's much talk about how we help our kids be less stressed and be more resilient. I can't think of a better way for our students to process this issue, learn more about themselves, gain invaluable perspective of such an adult issue, and develop greater resilience, than by actually doing something and expressing themselves whether it be through poems, short stories, or film. So, rather than looking at this documentary as negative and potentially harmful to our children in that it will "start" another round of suicides, perhaps us parents should look at this documentary as a positive growth step for our children.

13 people like this
Posted by Elena Kadvany
education reporter of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Aug 13, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Elena Kadvany is a registered user.

Paly senior and co-director Christian Leong said that the students did indeed follow AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) media guidelines and "considered the issue of glorification heavily in our filming process."

6 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 13, 2015 at 3:08 pm

I am so pleased to see that these students reached out to a local church. Many local churches have wonderful youth programs and are able to meet students in a neutral environment.

1 person likes this
Posted by Community parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2015 at 3:25 pm

I applaud this effort, but I'm a little confused. Is this a documentary about stress or a documentary about suicide/mental health? I hope the filmmakers made an effort to talk to the Stanford Professor who wrote The Upside of Stress -- which discusses a lot of research on stress, including how the interpretation of the same stress can have positive or negative impacts. It highlights some of the really negative ways we interpret and react to stress in our own community and is something anyone concerned about this issue would do well to include in the discussion (or risk making things worse).

2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2015 at 9:44 pm

There's a watch list at both schools. How many of those students are interviewed in the documentary? Too often the most vocal express what they perceive are the issues instead of asking those who are actually at risk.

5 people like this
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Aug 13, 2015 at 11:22 pm

It's great that our community is continuing the conversation about how to improve adolescent mental health care in our community.
To Gnar: people who commit heinous acts like theater shootings suffer from personality disorders which are different than mental illnesses. A sociopath may have a mental illness such as depression (or a physical illness such as asthma) but the depression (or asthma) are not the cause of the violent behavior.
Our county still does not have a single hospital bed for a suicidal teen. In June, our Board of Supervisors approved a feasibility study on bringing child/adolescent inpatient psychiatric care to Santa Clara County. Please go to, search for "Santa Clara mental health beds" and sign the petition to show your support.
I look forward to seeing the student film!

6 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 14, 2015 at 8:04 pm

All honor to these dedicated, caring young people. Giving up some of their summer's rest, to help in an urgent cause, is beyond-words admirable.

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

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