Panel discusses teen mental health, stress and suicide | News | Palo Alto Online |


Panel discusses teen mental health, stress and suicide


As in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, many parents in the heart of Silicon Valley see their children as all above average, well above average. So are those parents' incomes, educational levels and aspirations for their above-average children.

On Monday night, more than 350 people gathered at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton to hear a panel talk about concerns affecting those above-average children: their mental health, the stress they are under, and what can be done to improve the former, relieve the latter, and ultimately, combat teen suicides.

The event was put together by StarVista, a San Carlos nonprofit organization that provides counseling, skill development and crisis prevention services to children, youth, adults and families.

Three of the panelists are parents at Palo Alto's Gunn High School, where a number of students have committed suicide in recent years. Julie Lythcott-Haims is the author of "How to Raise an Adult" and the parent of a freshman and a junior at Gunn. Kathleen Blanchard is an attorney whose son John Paul was a junior at Gunn in 2009 when he died by suicide. Her youngest child is now a senior at Gunn. Dr. Steven Adelsheim is a Stanford School of Medicine child psychiatrist and director of community partnerships, and parent of a Gunn freshman.

Lythcott-Haims said her book, which came out three months ago, was inspired by her 10 years as a dean of freshman students at Stanford University, where she worked with close to 17,000 students. There she saw "among my well-heeled, affluent students, every year an increasing number who were accomplished on paper ... but less and less familiar with themselves," she said. They seemed to be unable to deal with setbacks and "to be scanning the sidelines all the time for mom and dad."

In speaking with her colleagues across the country, she found out "this was happening everywhere, in communities primarily of affluence, where parents have grown quite accustomed to being involved in the lives of their kids," she said. "Why are so many parents involved in the lives of their college-age sons and daughters?" Lythcott-Haims asked. "Why don't they seem to trust their kids?"

"I wanted to know what was going on," she said.

What she found, she said, is that beginning about 20 years ago, parents "decided we know best what will lead to our kids' success." What this has grown to include, she said, is the right grades, the right classes, the right schools, tutoring, coaching, homework, sports, drama, music, dance, community service and more; sometimes lots more. "We expect them to be perfect at all of this – perfect in a way we never were," Lythcott-Haims said.

"In communities like ours, children are effectively breathless, or worse, through this process," she said. "We give them the message that your perfection is what's good enough."

"Where does this lead?" she asked. Administrators at Harvard and Stanford say today's students are "failure deprived," she said, and need to be taught resilience. They are, she said, "a set of students who made it to where everyone told them they should go, but the minute something goes badly they have absolutely no wherewithal to deal with it."

The statistics are bleak. She talked about a survey conducted annually of nearly 80,000 students at 140 campuses by the American College Health Association. (About 26 percent of the students responded to the survey.)

These are the percentage of students who said that at least once in 2014 they had the feeling referred to: 86.4 percent had "felt overwhelmed by all they had to do," 62 percent "felt very sad," 46.4 percent "felt things were hopeless," 32.6 percent "felt so depressed it was difficult to function," and 8.1 percent "seriously considered suicide." Almost every number was worse than in 2013, the year Lythcott-Haims uses for statistics in her book.

And what do those students have to say? Lythcott-Haims said that as she has been visiting communities across the country to talk about her book, she has been trying to speak to students before she speaks to their parents. She asks them what they want her to tell their parents.

"Here's what they say," she said. "Don't plan my entire life for me." "Don't judge us when we take a break." "Stop comparing me to others in my grade." "Trust us in choosing a college that's right for me." "On the way to success there will be failure." "All we need is support, we don't need you to do it for us." "Life is not a video game and it's not all about getting to the next level."

"This holy grail of admission into elite colleges" has something to do with it, Lythcott-Haims said. "I've learned that this really narrow mindset about what kind of colleges we want our kids to go to is harming our kids."

What needs to be done? "We have to let them grow," Lythcott-Haims said. "We gave them life and life is to be lived."

In short, she said: "We have to let them become themselves."

Dr. Steven Adelsheim agreed that removing stress from the lives of children can improve their mental health. "I am really concerned we have a public mental health crisis in this country and in this community when it comes to providing early mental health services for young people," he said.

He said he found striking the relationship between early stress and serious mental health conditions. Many mental health issues actually surface as young as age 14, he said, and three-quarters of all mental health problems appear by age 24. Removing stress can help even with serious mental health issues, he said.

"As we deal with stress early, and as we identify issues early, we have the ability to wrap supports around young people and their families to really improve their outcomes over time," he said.

First of all, dealing with the stress of school, is important, he said.

Also important is talking with others with similar issues. "We're ashamed when our child is dealing with a mental health issue," he said. "We don't talk about it – we worry on our own," Dr. Adelsheim said.

But when families can get support, connect with others and learn what is going on, "our stress level drops, our communication improves, and our children are much more successful," he said.

"There are things we can really do and our first step is lowering stress to really help our young people get back on track."

Kathleen Blanchard gave a very personal insight into the issue. In the six years since her son died by suicide, she has discovered "he was suffering from an unknown and un-diagnosed mental health condition" and stress "that ultimately led to his death." There were signals, she said, "but we didn't understand them."

Parents, she said, need to listen to their children. "We need to really understand what they're saying to us, and in order to do that we have to stop talking," she said. "Be curious, be open, seek to know. Be quiet."

She also recommended getting to know their friends "so that if something happens and they see something" they have a connection to pass on the information.

StarVista plans to hold two follow-up sessions with a facilitator for smaller groups, one for the public and one for Sacred Heart parents.

The public session will be on Wednesday, Sept. 30, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in Sacred Heart Prep's Otto Library in the main building. The session for Sacred Heart community parents will be on Wednesday, Oct. 7, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. in the Piano Parlor in the main building.

To RSVP for either session, email

A wide array of resources are available at the Teaching Everyone About Mental Health website, started by the sister of a teen who died by suicide.

StarVista has a 24-hour telephone and online support for parents at 650-579-0358 and for teens at 650-579-0350. They have a Teen Crisis Chat Room on its website, where teens can share their problems anonymously with trained peer counselors.

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10 people like this
Posted by Need Help for our Emotionally iIll PAUSD student
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 16, 2015 at 4:16 pm

I want to thank all the people involved in putting this event together, especially Ms. Blanchard, I really admire her for doing this even when is very painful, she is still trying to help other young people in the name of her child. At this moment our child is going through very difficult times emotionally and PAUSD is refusing to find her eligible under Emotional Disturbance so she cannot get the needed services, event though the district approved an Independent Evaluation and this Dr. find her eligible. At JLS they told us they could only help her if she qualifies for special ed, and we signed the assessment plan, but at the meeting they said she does not qualifies for special ed because the symptoms have not been there long enough. We have been dragging with this issue since March 2015 when she was at JLS, and had not been able to find her help through the school. She is Post Traumitic Stres Disorder after she witnessed a man getting in front of the train. How can PAUSD officials deny that she has a mental issue? Unlike other students who die, we have been blessed by knowing about her needs before she dies, but still cannot get her help. At our last IEP, one person said at the IEP meeting that she did not agreed with the school psychologist when she said that the child was okay and did not needed services because she is has good grades in Math and goes to Cross Country. This person also said that she did not want us to have it in our conscious if later on something happens to the student. Not even this words made PAUSD officials and rest of IEP members change their mind. I am sure some of them disagreed too, but could not stand up for child because they can loose their jobs.
It is so hard to find help for our children when you are law income or a minority student. Any special education pro-bono lawyers out there who want to help the student get the services she needs? Give us your phone number and we will contact you. Thankss
We the Parents have advocated for the student, but no luck and feel like we are at the end of the rope

4 people like this
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Sep 16, 2015 at 4:53 pm

To the first poster- Please contact the Palo Alto subcommittee of the SELPA 1 CAC @ Web Link . They should be able to assist you.
As Dr. Adelshiem mentions, we do have a mental health crisis in this community when it comes to mental health services for our youth. We have zero inpatient mental health services for youth in the entire county: no beds at Stanford/LPCH, no beds at El Camino, no beds at Good Sam, no beds at Valley Med etc. What does it say about us as a community that we send our children "away" at a time they need us the most?
A group of us are working together to change that. We would love your help. We are the SELPA 1 CAC subcommittee on mental health. Google "SELPA 1 CAC" for contact info.

9 people like this
Posted by connection
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Our experience like "Need Help's" was that there really is no recourse unless you get a lawyer. And you have limitless resources. I am so glad for the work Sarah1000 is doing in the community and hope the SELPA subcommittee can help with the immediate crisis. But unfortunately, the school will only thwart whatever gets done unless the family (and other families) have legal help on their side. Good enough legal help that families can turn over the problems and just not have to stress about it anymore. (For that, we would have to have a ticked off billionaire in the community willing to take the side of families in order to fix our district.) Situations like this family have faced should never happen. Unfortunately, it's just the tip of the iceberg. I am so heartened to hear at least one JLS teacher stand up like that. Really sad to hear it was just one. But not surprised.

Please let the community know if you cannot find help you need. Our hearts go out to you.

Like this comment
Posted by former parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2015 at 11:44 am

@ need help

If your are having IEP meetings, your child is already in Special Ed.

1 person likes this
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Sep 17, 2015 at 12:18 pm

@former parent It is possible that this child has qualified for special education under another category (e.g., speech and language) but that the parent believes the child has mental health issues such that the student should also be qualified under ED. Students who qualify under ED in the MVLA District can receive therapeutic services (such as weekly visits with a psychologist/therapist and/or group therapy). It takes an emotionally strong parent to come forward to the District and to the community to say that his/her child needs mental health help. I hope that this family will receive the support it needs.

2 people like this
Posted by Courtney
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 17, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Seeing this quote, "I am really concerned we have a public mental health crisis in this country and in this community when it comes to providing early mental health services for young people," (Dr. Steven Adelsheim stated) made me grateful that everyone is seeing the importance of early mental health services and not just the suicide prevention talk. I am 100% ready to implement a plan and program to get the word out to kids/teens/parents about what exactly happens when a mental illness strikes and provide the vocabulary one can use to describe what is going on. This is all from my personal experience and growing up in the area when I didn't receive enough awareness or education regarding mental illness. I am happy this is being publicized and spoken about and I pray it continues.

11 people like this
Posted by So Obvious
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 17, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Did Blanchard really need to say that her son had a mental health condition? Now, parents are going to assume that their "normal" children will not consider suicide because they aren't mentally ill. Academic stress is much too prevalent in PAUSD. Environmental stress can lead to suicide. If a severely stressed student is taken out of PAUSD and put into a regular school with blue collar kids, most likely, the stress will dissipate because there is less academic pressure, less student competition.

Mental health services? Stop the stress so the students don't even get to that point! We have many teachers who don't teach well, pile on the homework, don't help students after school, aren't available via email, and expect us all to pay for tutors due to their laziness. And those without tutors have parents who wonder why they aren't acing their classes.

And what is this bogus statement? "Administrators at Harvard and Stanford say today's students are 'failure deprived." Elite colleges can only blame themselves for this - failure is not an option if one wants to be admitted to their schools. When they start accepting students with 3.3 GPAs and 1700 SATs, then they will find the students who are familiar with failure. There is a clear formula for students whose goal is elite colleges and most parents NEED to be involved to get them there.

6 people like this
Posted by Statistics
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 17, 2015 at 6:35 pm

@So Obvious really nails it with this comment: "And what is this bogus statement? "Administrators at Harvard and Stanford say today's students are 'failure deprived." Elite colleges can only blame themselves for this - failure is not an option if one wants to be admitted to their schools. When they start accepting students with 3.3 GPAs and 1700 SATs, then they will find the students who are familiar with failure. "

I have been trying to square the circle on two different facts:

1) JLH claims we parents are doing so much that our kids never experience failure.

2) Yet, my kid was regularly made to feel like a failure in PAUSD. She is a smart kid, but did not apply to Stanford. You see, Jordan and Paly take normal kids and subject them to hazing, pressure, intimidation, and mountains of homework so that they are regularly told that they fail. It is an unhappy, judgmental place where many teachers offer little support or encouragement.

What JLH has seen is exactly Survivorship Bias. Duh! Now I get it.

By the time a student gets to Stanford, they have survived this place without failure.

Many more were made to feel like shit by the uncaring staff that populate our schools.

If we were Helicoptering more; even to the point of blatant cheating - that would get my kid into Stanford. But then I would be a helicopter parent.

If we Helicopter less; my kid feels a failure, and doesn't show up on JLH radar.

So she only sees a slice of the world she creates with Stanford admissions standards! Brilliant. That is where the blindside is!

Like this comment
Posted by Parents of Student ine Terman's OCR th
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2015 at 7:09 pm

To Posters:
Thank you for your support
To connections: actually the person who stud up for the student who needs emotional support was not a teacher, but the Independent Neuro psychologist who evaluated the student through an IEE (independent evaluation at public expense) and found that the child qualifies for special education under ED (primary) and secondary as a Reading disability. We have had the first two IEP's or meetings to see if she qualifies for special ed, so she is not a child with an IEP yet..
Thanks again for your kind words and support

3 people like this
Posted by Michelle
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 17, 2015 at 7:55 pm

For free low income special education advocacy - you can try LACY in San Jose. They are part of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. Their number is: 408-293-4790.

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