Survey: Residents concerned about mental health, retirement | January 20, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 20, 2023

Survey: Residents concerned about mental health, retirement

While Palo Altans give city high marks for quality of life, survey suggests civic engagement may be waning

by Gennady Sheyner

Ask Palo Alto residents how they feel about their city, and many will praise its bountiful nature preserves, job opportunities and educational offerings.

But after two years of pandemic-related disruptions and isolation, a growing number also feel that the city is failing them when it comes to providing mental health services, according to the newly released City of Palo Alto Community Survey, an annual gauge of public opinions.

Of the nearly 400 residents who responded to the survey, just 26% gave the city "good" or "excellent" ratings when asked about availability of affordable quality mental health care, down from 44% in 2021 and from 63% in 2014, the first year in which this question was asked.

That's just one of the topics that nearly 400 Palo Altans weighed in on when they took the survey, which the City Council plans to discuss at its Jan. 23 meetings, five days before it meets at its annual retreat to set its priorities for 2023.

According to a report from City Manager Ed Shikada, the survey is used to "gain insights into residents' perspectives about the community, including local amenities, services, public trust, resident participation and other aspects of the community."

"Survey information is used to support budgeting, land use and strategic planning and communication efforts with the community," the report states.

Currently, the city's list of priorities includes "community health and safety," which includes mental health support. The survey results underscore the city's challenges in addressing this topic and suggest that the priority, as it relates to mental health, will likely be retained and expanded on in the coming year.

While the subject of mental health has come up from time to time over the course of the year, the City Council has not taken up any new initiatives to directly address the pandemic's impact on the mental health of local residents. Council member Pat Burt, who served as mayor in 2022, highlighted the issue in his "State of the City" speech last April when he suggested that the city has entered the "post-trauma" period of the pandemic, a particularly difficult time for local youth.

Many kids, he noted, had to be "basically at home for the better part of two years."

"This is a big impact, and we as a community have to figure out how we're going to help these kids transition as we'll try to come out of this period and recover," he said.

Many seniors, he added, were also housebound for much of the pandemic and did not have normal opportunities to socialize and make connections, he said.

"Those two ends of the spectrum of our community are ones that we have challenges with right now that are greater than we've had in a long while," Burt said.

The topic of mental health also came up during the recent council race, with newly elected council member Julie Lythcott-Haims listing it as a priority during her campaign and suggesting that the city form a task force that includes clinicians, nonprofits and school administrators to expand services for youths.

Vice Mayor Greer Stone, a high school teacher, said mental health services, especially for youth, should be a "critical priority for the city moving into 2023."

"We should take the results of the community survey seriously and help it inform what our next steps are going to be," Stone said. "The data is clear."

Cultural activities, parking get high marks

Availability of mental health services isn't the only area in which local opinions have shifted in the past year. The survey also suggests that many people believe the city can do a better job in getting them involved in government decision-making.

According to the survey, 46% of responders gave the city high marks for welcoming resident involvement. That's down from 56% in 2018 and 51% in 2021.

Not all news, however, is bleak. Much like in the past, the survey shows an overwhelming majority of Palo Alto residents giving the city high marks as a place to live (88% gave it high ratings), to work (79%) and to raise children (87%). A higher percentage of responders also gave the city positive ratings when it comes to opportunities to attend cultural, arts and music activities, with 78% ranking them good or excellent, compared to 71% in 2021.

In one of the pandemic's few bright spots, public parking now appears to be less of a concern as more employees are working remotely. In 2017 and 2018, the percentage of surveyed residents who gave the city high grades for ease of public parking was 33% and 32%, respectively. That went up to 59% in 2021 and to 67% in 2022, according to the survey.

Schools, meanwhile, are continuing to get high marks, with 88% of responders giving them "good" or "excellent" grades, roughly similar to prior years. At the same time, however, more residents are expressing concern about availability of affordable quality child care or preschools. Just 34% gave the city high scores in this category in 2022, down from 44% in 2021.

The survey also shows that while residents generally give high ratings to their quality of life, a growing number no longer see Palo Alto as a great place to retire, with only 46% rating it "good" or "excellent," down from 52% last year and from 68% a decade ago.

Since the city began its surveys in 2003, only one year had lower retirement scores: 2018, when just 40% gave the city high marks in the retirement category.

Anxiety over housing may play a role. Much like in the past, Palo Alto continues to get dismal scores when it comes to housing availability and affordability, with only 5% of responders giving the city high scores when asked about "cost of living" and just 6% giving rating it highly when asked about "availability of affordable housing." In both categories, Palo Alto was near the bottom in the list of nearly 300 jurisdictions surveyed by the National Research Center.

And when residents were asked what one change the city could make to make them happier, 24% of those who responded focused on housing (concerns about street conditions, which were the subject of 14% of the responses, were a distant second). "Build more housing" was a common refrain in the open-ended answer section. One person said they wish they could find cheaper rent as a graduate student; another requested "fair housing for everyone, with dignity"; while another asked for "more housing for teachers, fire fighters, service people, artists & musicians."

"The current high-rises are quite ugly; maybe something a little nicer looking?" they added.

The community survey also showed a growing demand for city services in 2022, compared to the prior year. Library use went up, with 72% of the responders reporting having used a library over the past year, up from 62% in 2021. In addition, 47% said they had used a recreation center over the prior 12 months, up from 39% in 2021.

But even though 45% of the residents said they had attended a city-sponsored event in 2022, up from 30% in 2021, fewer people expressed interest in shaping city decisions. The percentage of residents who reported that they had voted in the most recent election, attended a public meeting or watched a public meeting on their screens went down between 2021 and 2022, according to the survey.

"While residents value city services, civic participation has decreased," the survey concludes.

The survey, administered by the company Polco, was conducted between October and December and involved sending out 3,600 surveys to randomly selected households in all sections of the city.

According to Polco, 398 people completed and returned their surveys, for a response rate of 12%. Of those surveys sent, 7% were returned because the house was vacant or the postal service was unable to deliver the survey.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 19, 2023 at 11:10 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

What were the survey return rates in previous years? Was a second survey sent to individuals who did not respond? I think there was a follow up process in previous years.

Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Jan 19, 2023 at 11:25 am

Rose is a registered user.

What was communicated about speeding and other car violations? Are residents happy with our police?

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 19, 2023 at 1:43 pm

felix is a registered user.

Mental Health, quality of life, affordable housing, parking (not market rate and not under parked).
Sensible concerns..

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 19, 2023 at 3:58 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

The city's going to base budgeting priorities on a survey to which only 398 people -- or 12% -- responded and who saw a slight (5%) improvement in employment opportunities vs DURING the pandemic shutdowns?

And this was obviously before the huge tech layoffs, new $22.5 Billion state deficit vs previous surpluses, stock, market crash, construction slowdown...

So yup, I can see where mental health hear would be an increasing concern if we're focusing on that rather than city transparency, fiscal responsibility and what many would consider real city priorities.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Jan 19, 2023 at 4:24 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

@Online Name, I think the city assumes people who move into all of the new affordable housing (???) residents will park their cars blocks away. And tote all of their bags from the grocery store. And move their furniture in from a mile away. Even the elderly are expected to park and walk, unless they've been reading the writing on the wall about daylight robberies of elderly people walking the streets of Palo Alto. You forgot to mention they chose 3600 residents for their survey ... probably very selectively, too. But it shore looks nice with all that purty printin and font choice in their 153 pages of patting themselves on the back. The most glaring statistic that I noticed was that over 30% of people regardless of color are dissatisfied with their health care access. And yet here we live in the Stanford Land, home of self-professed top notch health care. And the other set of figures that show 67% of people mainly DRIVE. And 0% take the train, a bus, or a taxi anywhere. This should be proof to the City that more CONVENIENT parking AT HOME is needed. Not parking lots in the middle of town.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 19, 2023 at 5:06 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Mental health - let's have more things for our teens to do! Let's have more places for them to hang out with friends! The bowling alley, various other places that teens used to enjoy have all gone. What is there for a group of teens to do on weekends?

All our young people have suffered in the past 3 years through lack of socialization. They have been forced to stare at screens for school, for extended family communication and most importantly for socialization with their peers. These last two weeks in particular with all the bad weather hasn't helped as hanging out shooting hoops or throwing a ball hasn't been possible.

Until we can find more activities for teens that are purely fun rather than challenge and/or college application motivated, we will have unhappy, unsocialized and lonely teens.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 19, 2023 at 8:04 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

Sorry to see yet another unscientific survey with "sciency" trappings to try to justify it. Not only was the self-selected household (not even individual) response rate only 12%, but if you look at the un-weighted survey numbers for various demographic categories, they are far off the census/population category numbers. For example, 68% of the responses were from people age 55+, which is double their proportion in the City population. Such discrepancies are evidence that the reported opinions may also be quite far off the true City population opinions.

In the 1970s when everyone answered the phone, the response rates were high enough that such surveys were actually scientific. With the abysmal response rates today, organizations need to face up to the fact that such surveys are not valid anymore.

That said, kudos to the City for being very transparent with all the details of the survey methodology, even if that resulted in revealing that the Emperor lacked any clothes :)

Posted by Silver Linings
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2023 at 3:47 pm

Silver Linings is a registered user.

"The survey also shows that... growing number no longer see Palo Alto as a great place to retire...Since the city began its surveys...only one year had lower retirement scores...

"Anxiety over housing may play a role. Much like in the past, Palo Alto continues to get dismal scores when it comes to housing availability and affordability, with only 5% of responders giving the city high scores when asked about "cost of living" and just 6% giving rating it highly when asked about "availability of affordable housing." In both categories..."

Speculation like the above belongs in an opinion piece, not in a news article. We get that you can't live in the manner you'd like to become accustomed on a journalist's salary here, G, few even professionals can. Palo Alto has been hyper expensive and truly difficult to afford for decades. Even back then, most young people assumed they would get to a certain age and have to move away in late middle-age and later.

If we really do hold affordable housing as a value, we have got to have the hard conversations about how to achieve that in a holistic way, because housing creation will never be as elastic as demand, and places with good weather and a good university nearby will be in demand.

But assuming that density of all housing is a proxy for affordability doesn't work. We have to decide where we want to be on the scale from Ithaca to Manhattan/HongKong, and make decisions, because simply densifying everything does not create affordability (just ask Manhattan and HK), but it does create serious vulnerabilities and problems for cities (just ask SF and all the people of color who got pushed out with all the new building despite living there happily through other very expensive times).

Remote work changed everything. We cannot live in the past. If we want to support affordable housing, we must address the problem head on and stop assuming it will just happen as a side effect of other actions that de facto make it worse.

Posted by Old PA Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 21, 2023 at 12:51 pm

Old PA Resident is a registered user.

My child's [wonderful and very necessary] psychiatrist charges $1000 for a 45 minute counseling phone call. Insurance reimburses about $100. I'd agree affordable mental health is not available.

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