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Off Deadline: When journalism is personal — Gunn newspaper shares life's crises

On The Oracle's 'Changing the Narrative' series

Journalism education usually focuses on mechanics of "news" and putting together a tightly written fact-based story, along with occasional feature articles, descriptive "color stories" and a few other types of on-deadline writing.

But Gunn High School's student newspaper, The Oracle, has embarked on a different and rare form of journalism, a deeply personal recounting of life traumas and crises.

The theme of the articles is simple: "Changing the Narrative." Translation: Going for deeper connections.

While the sad background of student suicides remains -- nine have been reported since the train-death cluster of 2009 -- the mood of the school has moved strongly toward fostering mental health and positive connections.

Current Oracle Editor-in-Chief Shawna Chen -- under the guidance of Oracle adviser/teacher Kristy Blackburn, instructional supervisor for English and math -- has spearheaded the changing-the-narrative project. Chen was inspired by a talk early this year in which the speaker noted how important media coverage is when it comes to reporting suicides of young persons.

Blackburn said Chen particularly didn't like the fact that "people weren't talking about things that matter." She felt the need to "change the narrative," hence the series of deeply personal articles.

All the articles will appear only on The Oracle's website, to provide opportunities for interaction online.

The first article, by Gunn senior Lisa Hao, is entitled "Lisa Hao's journey of recovery," a painfully honest recounting of her depression and recovery, a day-to-day success story featuring positive thoughts and actions. The article has since "gone viral," Blackburn reports, picked up by a blog out of Stanford University and by some Chinese blogs.

The Oracle's website visits surged after it was posted late last year.

A second column was posted by Gunn math teacher Rachel Congress, recounting her divorce and remarriage and current life. Other pieces will be posted every other week, possibly spilling into the summer. There are about 15 articles in the works as of now, Blackburn reports.

"As a journalist, I know the importance of storytelling," Hao began her piece, available at gunnoracle.com -- where other articles will also be posted, along with past articles such as one about Gunn alumni talking about overcoming loss and depression.

Hao quickly gets into the reason for her article: "Personal stories can join communities by offering new perspectives and helping others feel less alone. Although I'm much more accustomed to reporting other people's stories, I believe it is also important to finally share my own story of overcoming depression and maintaining recovery."

She described her bout with depression as wrestling with a concept: all in or all out.

She writes that she had to explain that phrase to puzzled therapists: "All in means that I'm content with life; I wholeheartedly want to be here and the thought of leaving does not even cross my mind," she would patiently explain. "And all out means, well, all out. I finally stop speculating and just do it."

Hao said thoughts of suicide had occurred to her since the sixth grade: "I started to romanticize death and felt comfortable with sadness. Being 'all in' seemed impossibly ideal," she writes.

She says that she did not want attention or to cause "the hurt that I knew would come with my death. I just wanted to be able to relieve myself from my own pain, not give it to those around me."

Yet she came close and began to worry about balancing her pain against pain she would inflict. Her concerned mother spent nights in her room.

"At my lowest point I was hospitalized," she writes -- three days of feeling intensely alone and hopeless, considered one of the more extreme cases compared with other young people there.

"(I) finally realized how serious my depression really was," and when released -- never wanting to return to the hospital -- "I resolved to truly work harder at improving my mental health.

"On the day of my release, I promised myself that I would fully commit to recovery."

It wasn't easy, she remembers; it involved "countless health specialists" and attending weekly therapy sessions.

Finally, "I stopped viewing my sadness as a permanent state and started treating depression for the illness it is."

Seeking root causes, she found a therapist who "fit" and through sessions and reflection began to realize that in her case there was a "guilt that I wasn't doing enough," that her life didn't have enough meaning or make enough impact.

"I felt guilty and worthless," she writes.

Her road to recovery consisted of consciously doing positive things, as a start.

"I spent more time doing activities that made me feel happier and more purposeful. I filled my schedule with service, friends, exercising, hiking, The Oracle and other low-stress activities."

She "finished each day feeling productive and satisfied."

Then Hao gets down to the deeper secret to a happier life: Despite being more busy, she made sure to "always check in with myself."

"Now, instead of wallowing in my sadness, I've drawn upon my coping skills. I combat negative thoughts by recognizing their errors in logic -- just because I made a mistake doesn't mean I should automatically label my life as worthless.

"I take naps when I need to and I don't let myself dwell too much on suicidal ideations.

"I truly never thought it was possible for a day to go by without a thought about leaving, but now weeks go by without suicidal thoughts.

"For the first time in six years I can honestly say that I'm doing well.

"It took so long to get here, but for the first time in six years I feel alive. For the first time in six years I feel present and here. For the first time in six years, I'm all in."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Mary
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 9, 2016 at 9:25 am

[Post removed.]


3 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2016 at 4:04 pm

This is a great column and hopefully the stories foster a support group for others at Gunn to express themselves. Since all of the recent suicides have been male, it would be extremely useful to have stories from their perspectives.


5 people like this
Posted by Joy
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Jan 11, 2016 at 12:29 pm

"Changing the Narrative" was so inspiring to read! The Oracle has done an insightful, inspiring piece of journalism. I have had the honor of seeing a lot of these kids grow up before me at Terman from 6th grade on, and I could not be any more proud of Lisa Hao. She was honest, spoke from her heart and opened her soul for all to see. The secret to a happier life? "Always check in with myself," some advice we could all learn from. Thanks for posting this excellent article in the Weekly. I hope there are more to come. And thanks to The Oracle for continuing to share experiences we can all learn from.


4 people like this
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Jan 11, 2016 at 4:35 pm

Lisa Hao is such an inspiration! Major depressive disorder is an illness like many others such as asthma or neuromuscular diseases. With proper treatment, "flare-ups" are shorter and less severe. One in five people have illnesses of the mind, yet many people do not seek treatment and suffer so greatly as a result. Thank you, Lisa for speaking so openly. Your voice will save lives. Sending you much love.


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