Suicide survivors urge open conversations, awareness around mental health

Parent: 'Talking about suicide is what we all need to start doing'

Five women whose lives have been intimately, irreversibly touched by youth suicide — two by their own attempts and three by deaths of family members — spoke candidly about their experiences on a panel in Palo Alto Wednesday night, urging others to speak with the same candor about the oft-silenced topics of suicide and mental illness.

The event, hosted by Palo Alto nonprofit Children's Health Council (CHC), aimed to break stigma and increase awareness about these difficult topics. The five women, from an 18 year old to grown adults, have all been spurred to action by their trauma or loss, making it their mission to accomplish both of those goals.

"Talking about suicide is what we all need to start doing, and talking about mental health conditions," said Mary Ojakian, a Palo Alto resident whose son died by suicide as a college student in 2004. "That is where we need to go: understanding and awareness, which is pretty easy to get, for everyone."

The panel featured Ojakian, who along with her husband Vic have become staunch mental-health advocates locally and statewide; Kathleen Blanchard, a Palo Alto resident whose son died by suicide as a Gunn High School student in 2009; Melissa Seligman, a Los Altos resident whose daughter died by suicide as a college student in 2006; Taylor Chiu, a Palo Alto High School graduate who attempted suicide in high school; Julia Tachibana, also a Paly graduate, whose brother died by suicide as a high schooler in 2003; and Robin Fox, a Gavilan College student who attempted suicide at age 15.

The catalyst for the panel was conversations between Ojakian and Ramsey Khasho, director of The Center at CHC, about her lived experience with suicide. He realized, he told an audience Wednesday night, that many others could benefit from hearing from survivors directly in a honest, open conversation.

On a Powerpoint slide projected behind the five women was a quote that Fox said during planning meetings for the panel: "Transparency breaks the hold of stigma and gives us power."

Each of the women shared their personal story. Common among them was a theme of wanting to educate others after either not knowing, from the parents' perspectives, of the pain their children were in or, among the young adults, hiding their pain from others or even not understanding it themselves.

Chiu, for her part, said it took her 10 years to process and understand what she had experienced in high school as a suicide attempt.

"I was a high-achieving student. I got good grades. I was college-bound," she said. "Nobody knew ... I hid it very well, probably because of stigma and shame — or, definitely," she corrected herself, "because of stigma and shame."

"There is not a typical person suffering from mental illness," she added.

The three mothers, too, described children who "hid it well," but also lamented their own lack of understanding of mental health. Ojakian, who pushed the University of California to seriously improve its student mental-health system after her son's death, said she, even as a longtime nurse, had not been educated about suicide or mental illness in the same way she had about physical illness. Her vision for the future is a system where parents are educated from "day one" and through adulthood about their children's minds as much as their bodies, she said.

Blanchard, who has also become a public advocate for increasing mental-health education among teens and adults alike, said she's been working to "get the school district to be not so afraid of being considered liable or responsible but really seeing the opportunity in educating in this area." She said she sees that starting to change now.

Fox recounted the resistance she faced when trying to promote mental-health awareness at her own high school. She described a principal who, after failing to show up to several scheduled meetings with Fox, didn't believe students were struggling because they hadn't sought out the on-site counselor. When Fox wanted to organize a full week of activities dedicated to mental-health awareness, including asking all students to wear green, the principal asked her: "When we had school visitors, how was she going to explain the green?"

And when Fox succeeded in getting posters with mental-health and suicide resources on the school's walls, they were taken down when visitors came, Fox said.

It is a myth, the panelists reiterated, that asking or talking about suicide will cause young people to become suicidal.

"If there's anything that I can give, it's that you have such great power here to use whatever you learn tonight to go out and to be a missionary with this stuff, and to spread it," Fox told the audience.

The panelists and Khasho also took questions from the audience. One woman, whose son died by suicide three years ago, said she called CHC and other local service providers "in crisis" and could not get an appointment anywhere.

"It was daunting to say the least," she said.

Holding a CHC teen therapy pamphlet that advertises "no waiting for an appointment," the woman asked Khasho if that was true. He said it is.

"We're going to continue to hire ahead of the demand so that we can continue to say, 'no wait,'" Khasho said.

CHC has hired additional therapists as part of a new Teen Mental Health Initiative launched this year. As part of that effort, CHC and Stanford University are also convening this Friday a committee of about 30 community leaders to discuss and collaborate on ways to improve what most acknowledge is a broken system.

"The goals of the Convening Leadership Committee are to eliminate gaps in teen mental health care, build community voice and accountability, and increase access to teen mental health resources throughout the Bay Area's peninsula," an email describing the meeting states. "The outcomes will be striking and pivotal in determining our community's ability to respond to the rise of teenage depression, anxiety and suicide."

Wednesday's panel event was "part one" in a series; the panelists will return for the second event in January. In closing remarks, each urged audience members to treat mental illness as they would any other disease of the body, and to normalize conversations around suicide.

"When I share my story, so many people tell me that I'm brave," Chiu said. "I realize at this point in our community it is considered a brave thing to talk about my mental illness, but we will only have succeeded as a community when it's no longer something that you have to be brave about."


Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal is urged to call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can also call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.

People can also reach trained Crisis Text Line counselors by texting "HELLO" to 741741.

Links below provide more resources where one can receive help:

Resources: How to help those in crisis

Guest opinion: How to help those in crisis

Q&A about mental health: Local experts offer their advice, guidance


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


3 people like this
Posted by Harold A. Maio
a resident of another community
on Nov 17, 2016 at 10:03 am

"Transparency breaks the hold of stigma and gives us power."

"Stigma" is an interesting term to employ. Transparency helps instruct, educate, your words replaced positively.

Harold A. Maio

6 people like this
Posted by Friend
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2016 at 1:42 pm

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2016 at 6:10 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Thanks to all these women, so deeply affected, for speaking out.

Ms. Blanchard, especially, is leading in a courageous direction:

"...she's been working to 'get the school district to be not so afraid of being considered liable or responsible...'"

High schools don't cause teenage despair, nor can they cure it, but there's much they can do to make it more bearable, more survivable.

The community alliance Save the 2,008--now with 540 members--is advocating for just such changes in our schools.

Marc Vincenti

22 people like this
Posted by Underrepresented
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2016 at 1:36 pm

I attended this meeting and was stunned to find that the Asian community was so underrepresented, both in the audience and on the dais.

As the eldest child of Chinese immigrants, and a survivor of two suicide attempts-- one as a Gunn junior and the other as a UCLA junior-- I found this to be evidence of the denial that persists in the Palo Alto Asian community.

6 people like this
Posted by Caroline V.
a resident of Portola Valley
on Nov 30, 2016 at 1:22 pm

The CHC "collaborative community' efforts to reduce the teen suicides and the stigma around teen mental distress started more than 2 years right after the presentation of the documentary “The Mask You Live”. The topics highlighted the problems of drugs, alcohol, bullying, harassment, intimidation, retaliation, lack of understanding, lack of communication, and the way we interpret and present “masculinity”.

The latest Santa Clara Epi-aid report : Web Link
confirmed the same problems and reported high rates of bullying, physical violence, cyberbullying causing depressive mood, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation. The reports also list high rates of drug and alcohol use, hopelessness.

Project Safety Net and CHC failed to mention the problems during their “collaborative” community efforts and all 2 years have not invited me to speak, despite my requests.

I am a parent and healthcare provider who has lived and worked in the Santa Clara and San Mateo community for over 30 years. My husband and I have raised two children who are now young professionals. We know what happens in k-12 and higher education. We can also explain the changes and stresses that have changed the culture in Silicon Valley.

I had an opportunity to see what really happens in community colleges, public higher education, and healthcare settings as I went back to college in 2005 at the age of 43 to pursue a career change and new passion for Occupational Therapy, hoping to help children who have been diagnosed with Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Developmental Learning Disabilities.

I graduated with honors and had a job offer in pediatric OT, but I was intentionally denied to take the National Board exam, because I fulfilled my responsibilities and in my defense disclosed the abusive and illegal conduct that is being promoted by our current education system in collaboration with our healthcare system and the administration controlling these systems. I have a Masters in OT but cannot practice the chosen profession, but those who promote abusive and illegal conduct still are.

SJSU placed me at 3 fieldwork sites that violated the AOTA Code of Ethics, AOTA /SJSU fieldwork guidelines, SJSU student Manual Pattern I, BS/MS guidelines, and the OT Practice Act pursuant Cal. Bus. & prof. codes 2570-2571- and title 16, section 39, codes 4100-4184.

SJSU placed me at Alum Rock for fieldwork level I. My supervisors (SJSU alumni) and kindergarten teacher (all licensed OTs) knowingly violated the guidelines of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and knew the district was misusing its funding. I passed the fieldwork course in 2008 thanks to the help of newly appointed SJSU fieldwork coordinator Cesar A. who understood the unlawful practice. He left that position soon after. California Concerned Parents filed a lawsuit against CDE for that same reasonAnyone who discloses this and who tries to help parents and/or students gets retaliated against.

After graduation SJSU placed me at Valley Medical Center, where I was supposed to get further training in Rehabilitative services for patients who had suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury, but instead I was bullied and my training was limited to the “specific” documentation style and “specific” transfer style of my Clinical Instructor, a former student of Dr Pendleton and SJSU alumni. I did not know what bullying was at the time, but I had reported the over controlling and unrealistic demands of my CI in the 4th week.SJSU left me unsupported and told me to try my best. I was not the only one who had reported the unprofessional conduct of my CI; a medical doctor and a social worker had raised concerns publicly during a huddle meeting and physical therapists had reported her lack of efforts to help rehabilitate the affected side of one of our patients. My CI took it out on me and abruptly terminated my fieldwork experience using an alleged “safety” violation. There had been no safety violation. While it is true that the brake of my patients’ wheelchair became unlocked while she adjusted her midline position after a safe couch/Wheelchair transfer, but nothing had happened. This occurred during a caregiver session, so I had 2 witnesses; the patient and her caregiver, but Dr. Pendleton refused to investigate the situation and I had no other choice but to take the blame and accept SJSU’s offer to retake the course at a later time and later setting.
To retake the course SJSU place me at St Francis Heights a Skilled Nursing Facility in Daly City, where I worked unsupervised and autonomously as if I was a licensed OT from the 3rd week on. I no longer trusted the SJSU OT department; therefore, I had taken an extra 4 day-hands on NDT course to improve my OT skills with the geriatric population and patients who had suffered a stroke. My supervisor and the Rehab Director (both licensed OT) fraudulently billed my OT services and staff training under their name. It was in my defense that I disclosed the lack of supervision, the lack of infection control, Medicare fraud, Elder abuse, Elder Neglect, 2 suspicious deaths and the collaborative efforts to cover this up.

One cannot understand what is going on in the Bay Area without understanding mobbing. Mobbing is group bullying used intentionally and over time with the goal to expel someone out of the group and/or workplace. Mobbing used to be predominately in education, healthcare, and non-profit organizations, but with increased government funded programs, lack of integrity, lack of compliance and lack of accountability, mobbing has become an epidemic in the Bay area.
Mobbing starts with one person who over time gathers others who willingly or unwillingly use harassment, intimidation, gossip, defamation to the point that the victim is in severe mental distress, then with the help of administrative and executive power ignoring due process, ignoring due diligence, ignoring the law, and law enforcement refusing to enforce the law, the victim is pushed into a powerless and defenseless. The research and academic literature is well documented and available e. g “Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace” by Davenport, N., Schwartz, R.D., and Elliott, G.P. (2005), “Workplace Mobbing:Individual and Family Therapy for couples and families by Duffy, M., and Sperry, L (2007), and “Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture “ by Twale, D. and DeLuca, B. (2008). All Elected and appointed officials have received the details of the academic and workplace mobbing since 2012, but continue to ignore this abusive and illegal conduct.

California law prohibits bullying, discrimination, harassment, intimidation, retaliation, sexual assault. California law prohibits retaliation against healthcare professionals who disclose fraudulent, abusive and illegal activity, but under Governor Brown and Attorney Kamala Harris and under President Obama these laws are advertised, but not enforced.
District Attorney Rosen, District Attorney Wagstaff advertise they investigate crimes against elder, fraud, hate crimes, discrimination, and conspiracy, but they have refused to investigate my allegations. SJSU campus police filed my 46 page complaint under SG1301140 but refuses to show me the investigation and CAIT reports. I brought additional evidence, because the US department of Justice won its lawsuit against St Francis Heights and found them guilty for violating the Nationality and Immigration Act and for using discriminatory labor practices # 8 U.S.C. 1324b OCAHO CASE no. 11B00136, I had filed complaints of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and retaliation since 2011, but a network of SJSU/CSU employees and government employees continue to ignore their responsibilities: e. g CSU Board of Trustees and SJSU #005259723 has ignored its own EO 927, 928, 929, 1045, 1058, and 1063, CDPH # CA 00333172 , CBOT # UL2011-349, CDCA ## OT 2013-220, CA Auditor ##12012-1020 Civil Rights Office #09-13-2014 and #09-15-2348 ….the list goes on. All have failed to abide by the rules and failed to enforce the law. Those who claim they conducted an investigation have failed to produce that evidence. I did not have the required administrative hearings with testimony of my witnesses and subpoenaed evidence.
I cannot find legal representation on a contingency basis. The last Whistleblower/Retaliation case won in court cost over 1.5 million dollars. Governor Brown, who is the President of the CSU Board of Trustees has since closed the Committee overseeing our public postsecondary education and all certified mail since 2012 remains unanswered. I was misrepresented during the first phase of grievance (Nov. 14-Dec 7 2011), later to discover the misconduct and unprofessional networking at SCCBA (file 8084) and at Superior Court ( #112CV236939).

In the last 4 years I have heard the testimonies of students, parents, healthcare providers, and administrators who echo my experience and confirm the problems in our education and healthcare system. Several issues are addressed in lawsuits against our government, but many were appealed by government officials using Tax Payers money. We, responsible citizens who try to fulfill our responsibilities are silenced by high litigation costs, lack of media reporting, and many fear further retaliation. Kathleen Caroll recently won her lawsuit against CTC; This demonstrates the malintent of our current administration:
Web Link

Web Link

Web Link

It is all over San Mateo and Santa Clara County; False advertisement, lack of compliance, and abusive and illegal conduct gets covered up. Superintendent McGee advertises high quality education, but former PAUSD student revealed the truth and shared how she emotionally had to learn to cope when she discovered there were no GATE programs.
Elected and appointed officials advertised bully prevention e. g: Web Link and the stop bullying summit

but there is no bully prevention. This now has been replaced with “resilience training”. Can someone explain why PAUSD changed the wording in AB 5145.3 (administrative process for reporting discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation and retaliation) from “shall” to ‘may”? I did speak with PAUSD administration, who like in other school districts, only recite what is advertised, are convinced students lie, blame any other cause but the school, and all incidents covered by the media demonstrated that law enforcement failed to conduct a thorough investigation.

It is normal to feel anxiety, depressed moods, and hopelessness when students have to face drug and gang activity, bullying, cyberbullying, sexual assault, intimidation, harassment on a daily basis and nothing is done about it and covered up instead. It is normal to be frustrated and angry when the administration promises quality, equity, and safety, but then discover that in reality there is no safety, no equity, and no quality in education. It is normal to become hopeless when this administration continues to use false advertisement, cover up the truth, continues to manipulate the data, manipulates the accreditation, manipulates the credentialing, refuses to enforce the law, and silences those who tell the truth.

All education systems now demand more money. I hope the voters will demand the truth, transparency, and accountability. This will imply to stop the hypocrisy and demand that our laws are enforced.

6 people like this
Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 1, 2016 at 9:40 am

@Caroline V.
I read your description of "mobbing" with interest - that's what PAUSD administrators do to parents who stick up for their special needs kids, worse if it looks like parents may be effective. The administrative staff (specific people) gossip to teachers, slander parents behind their backs, even create false reports about the children, but deliberately flaunt records laws so that parents cannot correct the record. I know at least 5 families who have left the district, with lasting emotional damage to children and the whole family, after this same treatment. There really is no one to hold people to account, though. The system has no checks on this kind of behavior. I think the vulnerable need people who are willing to stand up. I'm not sure what you can do in this new asministration in Washington, though. Bullying and cover up seem a fundamental value. Otherwise, I would suggest trying reform from the outside.

3 people like this
Posted by carolineV.
a resident of Portola Valley
on Dec 1, 2016 at 11:17 am

Dear PAUSD parent,
thank you for your response. yes indeed your description is accurate. I hope you will send your comment to Santa Clara Health Officer Dr. Cody. I did and I am hoping to meet with her. It is a complex situation, but this abusive and illegal conduct has to stop.
My speciality was pediatric OT with emphasis on early intervention and sensory integration. We can indeed help parents and children make favorable changes with early intervention (especially before the age of 7) unfortunately just like you mentioned, the administration controlling our public education and healthcare systems have failed to uphold their promise and as you mentioned has left many families with lasting emotional damage. I have met many with lasting physiological, neurological, and physical damage. Many students that should have received the needed help and did not. They are now teenagers and that adds another set of problems for parents, especially when the current administration is pushing for more government control taken away the rights of parents.
I did inform US District Mueller who is in charge of investigating the allegations of California Concerned Parents Association against CDE because it is true that CDE not only misused IDEA funding as I witnessed and reported to SJSU when they placed me at Alum Rock in 2008, but over the years I heard the testimonies of so many teachers and healthcare providers who told me they were reprimanded if they spoke up or tried to help parents and students. To this day I hear the frustration of parents and the hurdles they have to go through to get the special need services in public institutions. Now they worry how their students will cope when they are in college.

Thank you for sharing the experience of PAUSD families. I hope more people will come forward. We have a broken education system, a broken healthcare system, and a huge bureaucratic mess that has affected many families in California. It is not just a problem in Palo Alto.I did inform Santa Clara Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody and will continue to inform the "stakeholders" who promised change. I am hopeful that the new administration in Washington will make that needed change, because my certified complaints to OIG and US Department of Health, and US Department of Education of the last 4 years remain unanswered. All nice advertisement, but no action.
Thank you,

Like this comment
Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 1, 2016 at 7:47 pm

I wouldn't expect Dr. Cody's office to be outside the influence of administrator mobbing, unfortunately. Nobodu up the chain has the inclination or power to root out the problems, but it's likely everyone is close enough personally that there will be no rising above gossip. Please share what happens, but I am not optimistic. Don't stop trying, but you may succeed only with more creative approaches, such as kegislation.

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

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Su Hong 2.0? Former waiter reopens Chinese standby under new name in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 7 comments | 4,250 views

Living as Roommates? Not Having Much Sex?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,769 views

What gives you hope?
By Sherry Listgarten | 4 comments | 1,586 views

Do city officials ever consider giving taxpayers a break?
By Diana Diamond | 18 comments | 1,495 views

Expert witnesses are more than experts. Plus my 7 fundamental impeachment questions
By Douglas Moran | 17 comments | 1,481 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 26 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away more than $7 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. When you make a donation, every dollar is automatically doubled, and 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.