Most teenagers spend their high school years fervently concealing the most vulnerable parts of themselves.
Three Gunn High School students are challenging that reality with a new podcast that features intimate interviews with classmates about depression, suicide, loss and identity. Dubbed "Project Oyster," their goal is to get guests to open up about difficult, oft-taboo topics and to encourage their peers to do the same. The podcast's tagline is "relatable stories that create emotional connections."
Rising seniors Hanna Suh, Sophia Lu and Vardaan Shah started the podcast through their school's Business, Entrepreneurship and Math (BEAM) class, which offers students real-life applications of mathematics through internships and guidance launching their own businesses.
The three students, who met on Gunn's cross country team but didn't know each other well, decided to focus on mental health topics, spurred by the memory of a student's death by suicide their sophomore year and their friends' struggles with mental health issues. They wanted to tackle the stigma that still makes broaching conversations about mental illness difficult on their campus a pressure that they felt themselves.
"We were scared at first of being stigmatized, or people being like, 'I don't like that,'" Lu said.
They started instead a podcast about high school life.
Early episodes released in February were light slices of teenage life: Lu interviewing a student embarrassed by his grandfather hoarding coupons to pay for a family dinner and another who recounted her grandfather mistakenly throwing her pet turtle in the garbage. They produced the podcast in a recording studio in Gunn's library and this summer are recording at the Mitchell Park library. Lu typically conducts the interviews and Suh or Shah edit and post them. None had any previous podcast or audio experience.
As the year went on, episodes got progressively more raw and candid. In episode four, graduating senior Jimmy Farley, known on campus as an extroverted, gregarious student, opened up about his struggles with depression and social anxiety. He referred to the podcast in his graduation speech in May and said he received almost 100 messages in the days after the episode was released from peers who said they had gone through something similar.
"A lot of people after that episode started reaching out to us telling us that they had a story to tell," Suh said, "and they wanted to encourage others to seek help, too. I think that was a really big turning point for all of us."
Graduating senior Rina Newhouse came on the podcast in April to talk about her childhood autism diagnosis. Joey Marcacci shared what it's like to be openly gay and an athlete in Palo Alto. Anna Reitman talked to Lu about her grieving process after the death of her mother, who struggled with depression and alcohol dependency after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
The three podcast creators initially chose the name "Project Oyster" because it sounded interesting, but it took on new meaning as the show evolved. Just as oysters form pearls around an initial irritation, interviewees' "pearls" have been born of experiences or hardships that the outwardly successful, happy teens hadn't shared publicly before they went on the podcast.
Newhouse said by revealing parts of herself that she had mostly kept hidden at school, including in a piece for student newspaper The Oracle's Changing the Narrative series, she "felt so free.
"I felt like I was being let out of a jail cell," she told Lu. "It was liberating and almost addicting to just open up."
Lu said they hope to destigmatize mental health specifically in Palo Alto, where the topic feels like "something that's always in the atmosphere" but that people are reluctant to address.
They also wanted to illustrate stories of people who sought mental health services, either on or off campus. They said they often hear peers who are struggling ask, "What happens when I get help?"
"Personally, just walking into the wellness center which I know is publicized by Gunn as 'You can come here if you need help' is something that's really hard for people to do. It could take them days, weeks, months to finally get the courage to even go in there," Lu said. "I think that judgment or that the fear of walking into that establishment, it kind of blocks out what the end goal (is) of seeking help. After you seek help, things will get better. But people don't see that because they're scared.
"I think the podcast also helps people because you hear stories (of) people who were able to build up the courage to do that and what happened to them afterward."
In most episodes, which run about 20 minutes, guests urge anyone who might want to talk or need help to message them on social media or to seek resources that have been helpful to them.
Through partnerships with the YMCA and youth well-being collaborative Project Safety Net, the podcast creators have spread the mission of "Project Oyster" beyond Gunn, including by talking to younger students about mental health through YMCA events.
"All of us are going through stuff as a high schooler and we think that we're the only ones going through it," Shah said.
They hope their podcast helps listeners feel less alone.
The students are continuing to record episodes this summer and through the next school year. The podcast is available on iTunes and Spotify. They invite any students interested in sharing a story on "Project Oyster" to email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to projectoyster.wixsite.com/website.
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.