Palo Alto school and city officials, with the help of local mental health professionals, are bracing for the release of a cover story in The Atlantic on the recent teen suicide cluster.
The national magazine is set to publish a story by journalist Hanna Rosin titled "The Silicon Valley Suicides" online on Tuesday and in print in its December issue. Palo Alto Unified School District administrators, city leadership and health professionals from both Stanford University and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation have been meeting to draft a response to the article (of which they had read an advance copy) as well as a list of FAQs, or frequently asked questions, around suicide, teen mental health and the community's efforts to address both over the past several years.
"While we grieve the loss of our youth, we are gratified by the enormous dedication and collaboration of local community leaders, youth, and families to address the myriad complex challenges the suicides have brought to light," the response reads. "We are facing these issues candidly, publicly, and with heartfelt compassion."
Many officials who are engaged in this collaboration including Superintendent Max McGee, the principals of both Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, City Manager James Keene, City of Palo Alto Chief Communications Officer Claudia Keith, Stanford child and adolescent psychiatrists Shashank Joshi and Steven Adelsheim, Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) pediatric and internal medicine doctor Meg Durbin, PAMF health educator Becky Beacom and parent advocates like Kathleen Blanchard were included on emails planning several meetings around how to respond to The Atlantic article. They plan to continue to meet early this week to prepare for the publication of the story, including with a "mini media training" led by Keith.
The response the group wrote details the gamut of efforts within both the schools and the community to prevent suicides and support teen mental health and well-being, from the creation of youth suicide-prevention collaborative Project Safety Net and the HEARD Alliance, a group of local health professionals who treat children and adolescents to a shift to a new block schedule at Gunn this year and the city's work on means restrictions, a form of suicide prevention, along the 4-mile stretch of Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto. Security guards are also now manning several Palo Alto crossings 24 hours a day, seven days a week an increase in coverage that the city put in place in October to last through the end of the year.
"Finally (and really firstly)," the response reads, are efforts that have been initiated and led by students. At Gunn, these include the ROCK (Reach Out, Care, Know) peer-support program, a new series in the student newspaper called "Change the Narrative," a student wellness committee born during last year's suicide cluster. Both Gunn and Paly now have Sources of Strength, a peer-mentoring suicide-prevention program. There are also ongoing efforts to increase connections between current students and alumni through dialogue events, including two this month called "Life After Gunn" and "Life After Paly."
In an email sent to all parents in the district earlier this month, McGee urged parents to "be especially vigilant of your child and their friends" during a stressful time of year that will also see the publication of The Atlantic piece.
"We have not received an advanced copy of the piece, but I imagine it will not be a positive piece and will cast a pall over our community," McGee wrote. "While not all children will be adversely impacted, some certainly will be, and it is not uncommon for the most touched to hide their deepest feelings and fears. ... It is up to all of us to identify those children who need extra attention and sustained support through the next couple of months."
"Check in with them regularly to see how they are managing the demands of the season," he wrote. "Please remind your children to look out for their friends as they are more likely to realize red flags even before parents or teachers do."
Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann, Paly Principal Kim Diorio and Student Services Director Brenda Carrillo will also be working together to prepare a message to send to students and parents at both the middle and high schools. Project Safety Net is also organizing a "Youth Voice Event" for Thursday evening.
Project Safety Net will convene for a regularly scheduled meeting this Thursday, 4-6 p.m., at the Rinconada Library, 1213 Newell Road, Palo Alto. To RSVP, email PSNPaloAlto@gmail.com.
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can also call 855-278-4204.
A list of community resources, compiled by the school district, is also available here.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture the numerous voices, opinions and our news coverage on teen well-being.