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: