On Deadline: Weaving an emotional-health 'safety net' for young persons is not a new concept | June 4, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 4, 2010

On Deadline: Weaving an emotional-health 'safety net' for young persons is not a new concept

by Jay Thorwaldson

The issues of adolescent stress and kids in deep personal trouble are not a new phenomena in Palo Alto, even though there is a real-time urgency to the current wave of concern sweeping through the community.

In the early 1970s, the district had created a "special problems counselor" position at each of the then-three high schools. Those positions were victims of budget cuts. One of the counselors, Phil Bliss, later founded Midpeninsula High School to be a "safety net" for bright students who didn't quite fit in the competitive atmosphere of the regular high schools. The school has evolved into other missions since Bliss's death some years ago, so Palo Alto students are doing high-wire and trapeze academics without a net, so to speak.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ann Gagnon, a local therapist/health educator, felt that high school students in particular were showing signs of stress. She approached school officials and the Palo Alto Medical Clinic and suggested creating a stress-reduction program.

She developed materials and even convinced P.E. teachers to give up one class a week to teaching meditation, the personal kind that teaches relaxation. But the core message underlying meditation/relaxation is that you have control of your feelings, and life, a power not everyone realizes they have.

A few years later a student at Palo Alto High School ended her life one weekend after going to her mother and saying she needed to talk. The mother said she was too busy right then — has ANY Palo Alto parent not said that, or something similar, more than once?

But that death triggered a series of community reactions that became part of the deep history of today's efforts to make the Palo Alto community a more caring and supportive place for young persons generally and especially those in pain or depressed.

Jim Shroyer, then principal at Paly, approached the late George Bonham, former vice president for education at the Medical Foundation, to ask if the foundation could help implement an "anti-suicide" campaign.

Bonham came down the hall to my director-of-public-affairs office and conveyed Shroyer's request.

I had mixed feelings. As a former reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times (later Peninsula Times Tribune) I had written a number of articles about suicides of young persons and anti-suicide programs. At the time the "anti-suicide" literature showed mixed results of many programs, and there was concern that while they might help some young persons they might validate suicide as an option for others.

I asked Bonham for time to think about it.

And in the morning I started writing a memo — a really bad mistake, but one I'm still glad I made.

I first asked if the key message we as adults wanted to convey to our young people in the community was, "Don't kill yourselves!"

I said the message should rather be something like: "We want you to be happy and successful by your own definition of success." I said we could ask area professionals for feedback.

Some 18 months later and after countless meetings of teachers, counselors, pediatricians, a child psychiatrist, community psychologists, parents and students, we produced an eight-part set of four-page mailings to all students at Paly, and later Gunn. The "Family LifeSkills" program is still on the Medical Foundation website, www.PAMF.org, and is getting a good number of viewings, according to Becky Beacom of the Education Division there. The materials were updated about four years ago.

The mailings covered managing anger, getting beyond blame, communications techniques, taking care of business, taking care of yourself, being a skilled negotiator and family problem-solving.

The idea was simple: If we could share commonly accepted concepts relating to positive vs. negative interactions with family members, friends and associates then it might help reduce frustration and stress within students and families.

A student/family survey earlier had shown that numerous families reported having a "serious argument" about once a week — a fight that had spillover effects into a second or third day. Our idea was that if ideas in the mailers could help families avoid every other argument then that would more than double the positive-interaction time within families. Extensive research shows that the well-being of young persons directly correlates to the degree of positive vs. negative interactions within a family — something we called "The Kalamazoo Connection" in the LifeSkills article, based on where one big study was done.

Some of those involved in the process are still around, as lasting connections were made during the development process. One parent and Paly senior were featured on a Today Show episode, and the program won a state award in Oregon when it was implemented in West Albany, a farming community, where the ideas were all news to them and merited a front-page write-up in the local paper.

While many took the messages and hints to heart, a special challenge in Palo Alto was that some students and parents felt that "we know this stuff" and could thus ignore it as old-hat information. But the key message through the series was: "Take time. Take time to be together and care for each other." One article was titled, "Take time to listen." Echoes?

A similar process to the LifeSkills effort was happening elsewhere in the creation of "developmental assets," now known locally as "Project Cornerstone." Initially it was a list of 40 personal assets in several categories, but was expanded to 41. One story was that the 41st asset stemmed from a suggestion from someone in Palo Alto.

That would not be a surprise, and I would like to know the story behind "The 41st Asset."

Meanwhile, a remarkable team assembled as Project Safety Net in Palo Alto unwittingly echoes the old "safety net" description used by the special-problems counselors and the early Midpeninsula High School.

Our challenge now, as a school district and community, is how to re-weave that net.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.


Posted by AnoNymous, a resident of another community
on Jun 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm

At least someone is focused on bringing additional industries to Palo Alto. Just as the "Diversity Industry" shows some signs of peaking a bit (though far too many are financially invested in "racism" to ever allow it to disappear), along comes well-known liberal toadie Jay Thorwaldson to prop up the "woe is our kids" industry. Perhaps Mr. T. is hoping to evolve into another Denise Clark Pope, who has managed to build an entire career mouthing platititudes on this topic.

Indeed, one cannot help but notice how the Palo Alto environment has evolved into one that is totally uncaring, not to mention destititute. No one cares about kids, they never have decent clothing or enough food, fist fights are constantly breaking out in the halls, etc.

Here are some ideas for the kids who are overwhelmed with workloads: No Twitter, Facebook, hanging out at malls, credit cards with no limits, world traveling, vacation homes or $80,000 cars in which to race around all weekend.

Then maybe they will have a little more time for school-related activities, and will no doubt suffer less stress as a consequence.

And stop providing the even most vague of suggestions that suicide might not be a completely unexpected outcome to this hideous environment; you liberal toadie.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 5, 2010 at 6:29 pm

I definitely think kids today have it harder than in my day, a generation back. But it is also true that we had young suicide even then. Our Gunn valedictorian killed himself during his sophomore year at Harvard, at age 20. He was a brilliant guy, a sweet guy, but obviously, mostly unbeknownst to us, troubled. The woman he went to Spring Formal with senior year (as friends, a group of us ate at Flea Street Cafe beforehand) later said that she felt he was never completely happy. I remember that it took the Times Tribune three tries to tell his story in a way that was fair to his family and friends (The first time was spot news. The second time focused on the fairly bizarre circumstances of his death, as reported by his East Coast friends and acquaintances; the third story was the only one that quoted his family directly. I called Ruthann Richter, who had once been my family's house sitter, and appealed to her to redo the story). I remember John most for giving a symposium on nuclear war, for turning down a scholarship opportunity based on a personal question they asked during his interview, and for making a ribald joke in physics class about torque. Actually all he said was "Distance times angle?" but he gave a knowing look of a a much hipper dude, and included me by association. About ten of us had a rowdy Super Bowl party at his Dad's house in South Palo Alto the year the Niners beat the Bengals and even now, years later, certain friends share an inside joke about instant replay.

I wonder whether there is a connection between a society in which our federal government spends billions of dollars on military campaigns and a community wherein a kid in his weakest moments thinks self-violence is rational, and then acts. That's a perhaps simplistic statement or a scapegoat but why are we so violent as a nation?

I appreciate Mr. Thorwaldson and the Palo Alto Weekly trying to find words that will help in this situation, in these times.

Posted by Enoghg, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 5, 2010 at 9:06 pm

I wish I would have known this before I got into this town. I like everyone else came here because I heard the schools were great. Now I know they are great, but there is a big cost to it. The mental and emotional health of our kids. I am glad this year my kids are leaving Gunn for good, but I know the experiences they had when they were there will haunted for the rest of their lives. At least they are still alive. Hopefully they will recover and be healthy and happy again. At this point I do not care anymore about their academics. Thanks God I learned that is better to have them alive than dead or in jail with a a 4+ grade point average. I which other moms could do this. Kids are not dying at the tracks, but right now they are still trying to die by taking pills. Some have been found on time and been saved. This is awful. It is an epidemic.

Posted by HPA, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 7, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Living here is very hard work. We must work very hard every day to make this into a place where all kids feel valued and welcome without regard to their study habits and/or academic ability. It is odd to have paid so much money to be in this place where we have to work so hard, but such is life. This isn't easy, but we can do it.

Posted by CVC, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 7, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Enoghg, Please write to me at hopepaloalto@gmail.com. I would like to discuss some of the things that you mentioned in your post. Thanks

Posted by good grief, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Good grief, Mark. Tis a far stretch to try to connect suicides to our spending "billions" on the military.

As a percent of our total fed budget, our military spending has continued to decrease since WW2. Yet, since the 60s, our suicide rate continues to climb..why is that? Lots of changes since then..cable TV being one, Moms working outside the home being anothe. . Along the same kind of thoughtfulness you exhibited, I suspect cable TV and working moms could be blamed.

But, go ahead..blame that vast military complex for all the evils of our nation, including local kids committing suicide. I am sure that is helpful to the grieving families and friends, and helpful in preventing more troubled youth from taking that permanent solution to temporary problems.

Posted by Mark, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2010 at 11:16 am

Truth be told, I was writing that post for myself more than ostensibly trying to help the families and friends afffected by our more recent tragedies. It's my way of processing, even 25 years later, what became of my friend John. But it is true in his case that he was worried about nuclear war -- he organized a teach-in about it, during the Gunn lunch hour.

I don't know if it is helpful or not to put the recent events in a historical context; if I have spoken recently about what happened to my friend and classmate, I have hoped the information helps.

Again, I appreciate Mr. Thorwaldson writing about this topic, about the programs we do have in place here, and the people putting so much of their hearts into trying to help. If I wrote that kids have it harder now, it is also true that there are probably more people working on these issues and we have more knowledge about these issues.

Posted by Jennifer Grove, a resident of another community
on May 8, 2012 at 11:20 am

My Mother and I went to Ann Gagnon when I was small and having trouble in school. I remember that she asked my Mother some pointed questions and that we never went back to see her. This was the one and only time someone "outside" seemed to understand that I was not okay and suspect that the source of the problem was my relationship with my Mother. I never had another chance after that.


I am almost 50 years old and completely disabled and unemployable. If only...

Posted by Jennifer Grove, a resident of another community
on May 8, 2012 at 11:25 am

Would it be possible to contact Ms. Gagnon? Is there anywhere I can reach her?

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