More than 300 local parents, educators, clinicians and community members gathered Tuesday morning to discuss ways to combat what one speaker called the "new norm" for teenagers in the area: alarmingly high rates of anxiety, stress, depression and death by suicide.
The Children's Health Council (CHC), a Palo Alto nonprofit that supports youth with anxiety, depression, ADHD and learning differences through services and school sites, devoted an annual breakfast panel to the topics. CHC billed the event as a "call to action" for a community continuing to cope and learn from two separate youth suicide clusters in the last several years.
"How can we change the tide away from teen anxiety, depression and suicide toward teen resiliency, happiness and a sense of well-being?" asked CHC Executive Director Rosalie Whitlock, whose children attended Palo Alto schools.
A panel of speakers spoke both personally and professionally to the ever-present issues of intense academic pressure, too-narrow definitions of success, the connection between sleep deprivation and depression, and finding ways to dispel the stigma around mental illness.
The panel featured Stacy Drazan, a Woodside resident whose 17-year-old daughter died by suicide in 2014; Jenny Jaffe, a local high-school graduate who went on to found Project UROK, a nonprofit that creates digital content for teenagers struggling with mental-health issues; Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshman at Stanford University, Palo Alto parent and author of "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kid for Success;" Denise Pope, co-founder of Stanford Graduate School of Education education-reform group Challenge Success; and Chris Harris, director of the CHC's Esther B. Clark School, which serves children with severe emotional and behavioral issues.
Jaffe, who spoke frankly about her own struggles with mental illness, from being diagnosed at 10 years old with anxiety, panic disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to her own suicidal ideation, said that the "most pressing" issue facing teens is the stigma both internal and external that is attached to mental illness.
"No kid is born knowing what they should feel is stigmatized," she said. "They learn that from us. They learn that from the community at large and even if they're hearing positive messages from one person in their life, it's a community effort. It has to be a community effort.
"There has to be a sense at school that it's safe to talk about; there has to be a sense at home that it's safe to talk about; there has to be a sense that once it's talked about, there's a recourse for them," she said.
Jaffe stressed the importance of meeting teens where they are to send these kind of messages in a more relatable way, particularly through social media. Her nonprofit offers an example of that: Project UROK provides a platform for videos (both funny as well as meaningful and informational), testimonials, podcasts and other content "made by people who have been there before," its website reads.
Finding ways to bring together peer and professional support is also a critical new frontier, Jaffe said.
Parents are, as ever, a fundamental part of the equation. Lythcott-Haims urged parents in the audience to give their children permission to pursue alternate definitions of success. She described one late night in her own house when she realized she had to "walk the walk" of this message with her own visibly overwhelmed son. A Gunn High School sophomore at the time, stressed out over his Spanish homework, she asked if he needed to drop the class.
"And my son said, 'Can I?'" she said. He did.
"There are some colleges that will not want my child because he dropped that class and I'm here to tell you, 10 years ago, that would have kept me up at night but I can sit here today in front of my peers and say, those colleges don't want my kid; I don't care," she said.
Others, both on the panel and in the audience, spoke to the difficulty of accessing mental-health services, even in a region as resourced and aware of the need as the Palo Alto area. One in four parents find it difficult to obtain mental-health services for their children, a CHC board member said.
Whitlock said many parents have said to her "over and over again, even those with resources, even savvy parents who know how to work the system, who have tenacity, were often in a place where they could not find the right roadmap to care for their troubled teens in a fast way, which was necessary, and in a caring way."
"What if your kid is suffering and you get on the phone and the first appointment is in six months?" one mother in the audience asked. "I can't tell you the system I have been in."
Local mental-health services, both on school campuses and in the community, have been in high demand over the past year, particularly in the wake of several deaths by suicide in Palo Alto, with long waitlists and difficulty getting in to see quality mental-health professionals close to home. Mental-health professionals themselves have said the local network is unequipped to meet the current level of demand.
Ramsey Khasho, director of the CHC Center and director of clinical services at CHC's Sand Hill School who moderated the panel, said CHC is hoping to find ways to "help fill that gap."
"Could CHC be the go-to place, where you know that the teen and the parent will get connected with resources and until that connection happens, they are held safely and comfortably and very personally?" he said.
This is similar to a model Drazan and others in the community are currently working to bring to the community. headspace, a national youth mental-health initiative in Australia, provides early intervention services from physical and mental health to alcohol and other drugs, work and study issues to 12- to 25-year-olds at dozens of centers located throughout the country.
Services are either free or come at a low cost, and many centers offer drop-in services. headspace centers are also built and designed with input from people from the very age group they serve and have youth advisory boards. The CEO of Headspace, Chris Tanti, visited Palo Alto last week to meet with different groups and speak about his initiative at a meeting for youth well-being collaborative Project Safety Net.
Drazan said that for her daughter, who was struggling with her mental health since seventh grade but her parents only became aware of it when she was a junior in high school and at a crisis point, earlier intervention and a comfortable place to open up could have made a critical difference.
Stanford's new Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing is hoping to open similar adolescent mental health clinics, possibly in the Bay Area and likely across the United States.
Drazan also stressed the need for more inpatient psychiatric care for local adolescents. Currently, there are no such services available in Santa Clara County, though county staff have indicated they hope to change that by this summer.
Drazan, too, urged more open and continued conversations about mental illness. Her older daughter, Mackenzie, also recently launched a website called Teaching Everyone About Mental Health (TEAM) that aims to reduce stigma and make navigating the local system easier with resources and information around mental health.
"We must lift the veil of stigma," Drazan said Tuesday morning. "We must start talking. Mental health affects all families, across all cultures and socioeconomic groups."
CHC is hoping to continue the discussion around teen mental health with a new "Teen Initiative." A series of upcoming events include a parents' workshop on March 7, a teen forum on March 17 and a community panel on April 25. For more information about those events, go to chconline.org.
Khasho also called on attendees Tuesday to start a 30-day challenge: For the next 30 days, talk to at least one person each day about teen anxiety, depression and suicide.
One-hundred percent of proceeds from the breakfast panel, for which the Palo Alto Weekly was a media sponsor, will go to support CHC's new Teen Initiative.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify to capture its coverage on youth mental health and well-being since 2014. To view it, go to storify.com.