The December article in the Atlantic magazine addressing the two teen suicide clusters we've experienced in Palo Alto -- in 2009 and again in 2014 -- highlights some critical issues in our community. Some of our challenges are mirrored elsewhere, and others may hope to learn from our experience and our responses.
As we grieve the loss of any youth, we are gratified by the enormous dedication and collaboration of local community leaders, teens, and families to address the myriad challenges the suicides have brought to light.
The community -- including health care professionals, school officials, city officials, parents, students, various public and private agencies -- are facing these issues candidly, publicly, and with heartfelt compassion. We are guided by the scientific evidence about what works, by advice from national and local experts, and by the voices of our own youth. We have asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help assess local suicide risk factors, to advise what we should supplement from the "best practices" already implemented.
We are addressing the risk factors that can lead youth from stress to distress, to overt depression and anxiety, to suicidal thoughts and actions. Over the past six years, we have implemented and continually refine many specific steps and programs to improve youth well-being: decreasing stigma about addressing mental health concerns, reducing academic and performance pressure, improving mental health care, reducing access to means of self-harm, and improving public and media communication about these issues.
Our city convened "Project Safety Net," coordinating the work of the many public and private organizations focused on teen well-being (psnpaloalto.com).
We have worked with media about how to write responsibly about suicide and to reduce the risk of contagion fostered by sensationalistic reporting. Many resources for teens and families with concerns can be found at AFSP.org, HEARDAlliance.org, and 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Comprehensive school resources can be found in the Suicide Prevention Toolkit written by the Palo Alto Unifies School District and now disseminated statewide: pausd.org/comprehensivesuicidepreventiontoolkit.
Our schools bolstered living skills courses to reduce stigma and address well-being holistically, eliminated early morning academic classes, implemented block scheduling, reduced homework, started peer and teacher-mentor support programs, educated parents about teen mental health (including meeting with multiethnic groups), added mental health specialists, and adopted nationally known programs (Sources of Strength, Break Free from Depression, etc).
Our major local health care organizations formed a collaborative (heardalliance.org), with initial focus on training primary care physicians to screen and treat teens routinely for mental health issues, and know when to refer. New "navigators" surmount notorious difficulties in accessing mental health care specialists, linking teens directly to therapists and psychiatrists. A new youth well-being center at Stanford's Department of Psychiatry will consolidate clinical care and research.
Our city has addressed "means restriction," limiting access and improving visibility along the rail line, adding motion detectors, and staffing guards at rail crossings 24/7.
Finally (and really firstly), many student-led efforts to manage stress and pressures to succeed have been put in place. Students' projects include a high school peer support program ("ROCK:" Reach Out, Care, Know), a documentary ("Unmasked"), and a newspaper series ("Change the Narrative"), where students share stories of strength, hope, and healing.
We embrace our responsibility to help our youth grow into happy, healthy, well-rounded adults. We are grateful to have the commitment and talents of a diverse, passionate, fully engaged community.
Dr. Meg Durbin is a pediatric and internal medicine doctor at Palo Alto Medical Foundation. She is also co-founder of a collaborative of health professionals, the HEARD Alliance, addressing youth well-being.