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Gunn High School alumna Chloe Sorensen got involved in mental health work in her freshman year, but even she didn't practice what she preached until she was a senior. Sorensen, who graduated in May, co-founded the campus' Student Wellness Committee, helped bring the Youth Empowerment Seminar program to Gunn, helped create the new position of student wellness commissioner for student government and advocated for the student body as Student Executive Council president. Though she knew how important wellness was, she often pushed aside her own mental health in favor of work.
"My days were packed with things, and I didn't feel it," she said. "I was adding more things and seeing how far I could take it."
Every day there was no room for error nor time to realize she was in distress.
"One thing would go off, and it was like Jenga," she added, referring to the game of stacking and balancing wooden blocks. "There was no time for crisis, and when there was a crisis, it just threw everything out the window."
She knew she needed a major lifestyle change. After a difficult junior year, she told herself she wasn't going to let college applications, school or anything get in the way of her wellness. Her senior year, she made space for herself, dropped some activities and spent more time with friends and family.
"I think people get that wellness is important because people are always talking about how important it is," she said. "But until you go through something or experience it firsthand, you just won't feel like you need to prioritize it."
Sorensen's experience is common at Gunn and illustrates a conundrum that students say is both perplexing and disheartening: In response to two teen suicide clusters since 2009, students and administrators alike have implemented initiatives to spread awareness of the importance of mental health and diminish teens' fears of asking for help. But three years out from the last cluster and about two months after a Gunn senior died by suicide, teens say that while openness about mental health has improved, a lingering problem remains rooted in a culture of academic striving and stress.
Amidst a cloud of high ambitions, high expectations, high stress and high aversion to vulnerability, many students put on a facade of having it all. They often give themselves no room for failure and feel they have to hide insecurities in order to measure up to their peers and the often unrealistic standards they themselves — and others — impose upon their lives.
As self-worth becomes inextricably intertwined with academic results and maintaining a successful facade becomes their norm, students said they find themselves less and less able to take steps to care for their mental health. And though the majority of people who die by suicide — 90 percent — have a diagnosable mental disorder, according to health care professionals, mental health and wellness are critical to helping prevent suicides.
While mental health experts, school administrators and parents are frequently interviewed about youth mental health, the voices of teenagers affected by changes and traumas are less often heard. To gather a more nuanced perspective on the campus culture at Gunn, the Weekly spoke to nine students and recent alums about their experiences with the many pressures that tug from deep within the school climate.
Reaching for the stars
Nestled in the epicenter of Silicon Valley, where famous startups like Facebook, Apple and Google are regularly developing cutting-edge technology and being lauded for transformative innovations, Gunn students grow up facing certain expectations, said senior Danny Howell, who was raised in Palo Alto after moving from Salt Lake City when he was 2 years old.
Many students feel as if the norm in Palo Alto is a very specific image of excellence — high grade-point average (GPA), strong standardized test scores, leadership in multiple extracurriculars, then attendance at a prestigious Ivy League college and, eventually, a six-figure income.
"It's part of the culture," Howell said. "It's not often something that's stated directly but more things that are just implied or people pick up as expectations or ways of going about things just because that's how everybody else does it and that seems like the way it should be, even if you haven't been told this."
Junior Meghna Singh moved to Palo Alto from Boston in the summer before fourth grade. Palo Alto's high-pressure environment, she said, was not present in Boston. People here are "super high-achieving," she said.
Silicon Valley's intense work culture, said senior and current school board representative Advait Arun, rubs off on the teenagers who live here.
"Everyone wants success, and that's not a bad thing, but people take the high-pressure environment and stay under pressure, stay stressed just to achieve success," he said.
According to senior Vidhu Navjeevan, because Gunn has a number of immigrant families who came to America seeking better opportunities and better lives, that mentality of striving is reinforced in students' minds.
"I definitely don't think it's coming from a malicious place," she said. "I think parents just want the best for their kids."
The "white picket fence American dream," said Gunn alumna Shannon Yang, is the only future Palo Alto children see growing up.
It's the "perfect life," but to have it, you have to "get a good job, live in Palo Alto, have a Palo Alto house, family, richness," said Yang, who graduated in May.
"Since this is such an affluent community, anything under a six-figure salary would entail downward mobility and a sudden reduction in the quality of life we've been used to growing up, which is scary," she said. "Most people's parents have had to work to get where they are, so it's probably more an expectation" that their children would be similarly upwardly mobile.
That upward mobility starts, in many students' minds, with college admission.
Navjeevan's parents, who are from India, were only aware of Ivy League schools, she said. When those are the only schools a parent knows, it's easier to assume that they're the best options for one's children, Navjeevan said.
Arun added that though not every Palo Alto student attends a top-ranked college, "going through middle and high school, all you hear about are the students with 4.0s who get into the Ivy Leagues and Stanford."
"Even if they're in the minority, they're the only ones you hear about," he said.
This one-track narrative only compounds pressures to get into the perfect college, senior Janet Wang said.
"I feel like it's hard for people to understand that (pressure) because it seems like everyone here is only getting into and only striving for schools that seem more prestigious to others," she said. "People who excel are really prevalent here, and everyone obviously wants to follow in their footsteps.
"And since we have a very prestigious university so close by — I don't think it adds a burden on to students, but sometimes it is a reminder of a reality that could be yours if you worked hard enough for it."
Standards for students are higher to begin with, Howell said. When they fall short, people may say it's OK, but the initial hard-to-reach expectation still persists.
"That's the guideline people are supposed to initially reach for," he added. "They really are supposed to reach for the stars."
Gunn has a reputation for academic rigor. In the 2017 U.S. News and World Report for best high schools, Gunn ranked No. 150 out of more than 20,000 eligible public high schools in the country, No. 19 in California and No. 8 in science, technology, engineering and mathematics nationally.
Because students see school as the central avenue to success, many push themselves to pursue unrealistic academic goals, from a schedule stacked with Advanced Placement courses to the perfect grade point average.
Often, parents intentionally or unintentionally contribute to the message that only a 4.0 GPA is acceptable, Howell said.
His parents have never told him that he needs to get all A's. They've said that B's are fine. However, if a quarterly progress report shows that one of Howell's grades is edging closer to a B, his parents will ask, "How come?"
"It sounds and feels like, 'Why is this not easily an A? This should be easy,'" Howell said. "So it's not something they say directly or even try to express in any way, but it's something that at least I have felt to some degree. And I'd be surprised if I was the only one that was like that at Gunn."
Parents aren't the only ones adding to this culture of high academic expectations, both Howell and Yang said.
"Parents and friends and peers subconsciously contribute to one's own self-perception that I need to be successful or I can't be judged in a bad way," Yang said, "but the largest factor is oneself."
In the school district's most recent Strategic Plan survey, which sampled 1,152 students from Gunn, 44.8 percent of those Gunn students reported a positive social and emotional experience that year compared to 57.4 percent at Palo Alto High School. Forty-one percent of Gunn students surveyed reported that they had received "positive" mental health counseling.
"It'd be a lie to say there's no stress on campus," said sophomore Hanna Suh, who is a member of student-government and believes high school should be spent discovering one's true passions. She said, however, that her stress comes from her own expectations for herself.
The increasingly competitive college-application process makes students anxious for the future, said Singh, and being surrounded by high-achieving peers makes it worse.
If everyone around you is constantly worrying about getting into a "good college," Yang said, it's hard not to get caught up in it as well.
She said her friend once told her, "Shannon, your anxiety is seeping off into me."
A lot of the pressures to keep up a certain image — of doing well, of having it all — are self-cultivated, Wang said. It's like a "subconscious competition" that can at times tip students over the edge, she said.
Since her freshman year, Wang, for her own well-being, has tried to remove herself from situations in which she would inadvertently compare herself to her peers, such as after class when students compare answers and test scores or discuss achievements.
"I feel like people who ask about other people's results don't want to feel lesser or that much superior than other people," she said. "I think it's a subconscious itch for constant relief — knowing that you're doing OK in comparison to others."
Comparing test scores, the number of Advanced Placement classes they're taking and even courses in general is common at Gunn, said senior Alvin Hom, particularly when registering for the next semester of school. During the rest of the year, however, he said academic competition isn't as big of an issue: "We're all just trying to succeed."
For Singh, conversations about summer plans also reveal students' competitiveness. In early April, whenever she asked her peers what they were doing during the summer, people would answer in vague terms.
"They would say, 'I'm just kind of doing this and that,' and I realized this — they're not telling me because they don't want me to know what they're doing ... and apply for the same internships," she said.
When students look to grades, test scores and appearance of success for validation, their self-esteem becomes tied to the external — and though it may be easy to reassure others that the external doesn't define who one is, what one believes in one's head may differ vastly from how one actually feels, Navjeevan said.
"On paper, when you're dealing with other people, it's much easier to say, 'Grades don't matter,'" Navjeevan said. "And you believe that until you have to apply it to yourself."
"I think it's because you hold yourself to a lot higher standards than you hold others," she added. "You know that getting bad grades isn't a big deal, and you know it because your friend is still this amazing person no matter what their GPA is, but when you start using GPA and letter grades to measure yourself, then it matters a lot more."
When you start priding yourself on getting A's and "being perfect," it becomes a problem, she said, "measuring yourself in these little things."
Impacts on mental health
After Palo Alto's second cluster of student suicides in the 2014-15 school year, Singh said there was a lot of talk at Gunn about self-care. Since then, however, it's "dwindled down."
"If a teacher is like, 'You should turn this in the day after the assignment date, and sleep instead,' in (a student's) head, it's 'No, I should get this done first,'" Singh said.
In their quest to achieve just as they think everyone else is achieving, students will often ignore their own signs of distress, Singh said.
If everyone else "seems fine — if they can do it — then I should be able to do it, too," she added. "They don't want to be different from the norm."
The pressure to do well makes asking for help all the harder, said Singh, and can compound mental health issues. Students say they don't want to burden others, and they worry about what their parents, friends and the community as a whole will think if they reveal that they're struggling.
(Read Singh's findings from her survey on Gunn and Palo Alto High School alumni that showed choice of college doesn't determine satisfaction in life).
In a 2016 community survey conducted by Project Safety Net, a local youth well-being collaborative, only 52 percent of current Palo Alto students agreed with the statement: "I would be comfortable telling a friend or family member if I felt I needed professional help for depression."
By contrast, 80.6 percent of current parents agreed with the statement.
On the other hand, 46.9 percent of students who responded agreed that "I would recognize if a friend or family member was thinking about killing themselves."
The survey collected responses from 1,582 self-identified Palo Alto residents, about a third of whom reported they were current students. The survey also found that 8.9 percent of youth ages 13 to 15 actually strongly agreed or agreed with the statement "Suicide is shameful, something to be hidden." (Another 18.1 of the surveyed students neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement.)
"There's this stigma that in order to need mental health help, you have to have a mental illness," Navjeevan said.
Wang agreed, adding that it's hard to "be vulnerable and accept that you need help." But, she added, knowing about mental health services — whether for oneself or a friend — can be helpful for everyone, especially since you never know when you might find yourself needing help.
Singh, Wang, Sorensen and Navjeevan all said they have accessed mental health services such as therapy or counseling.
For Singh, it wasn't until a friend said she'd been going to therapy for years that Singh decided to try it herself. Though she had hesitated for a long time due to concerns about what it would be like or whether it would help, hearing her friend say that therapy had made all the difference convinced Singh that she needed to practice what she preached to others.
After hitting a rough patch last year, she began therapy and has been open with her friends and classmates about her experience. If they ask her to hang out and she has an appointment, she responds honestly that she's going to therapy. Now that she's experienced its positive impacts, she also actively encourages her friends to attend therapy.
The next generation
Coming into Gunn, Suh was apprehensive, in part because of the school's academic reputation. Once there, however, she found unexpected sources of support.
"It was academic, and it was hard, but — much more than I thought so — there were more people who supported me and were willing to help me out, especially upperclassmen and teachers," she said.
In every class she attended in her first week, teachers openly discussed mental health. The school's various wellness initiatives — Titan Connect, the Youth Empowerment Seminar program, the wellness center — sent the message that Gunn cares.
Suh's P.E. teacher in particular provided guidance on how to access counseling services and made it a point to talk to her classes about mental health.
"She was always telling us how she's open to talking to anyone," Suh said.
Gunn's new block schedule and use of "flex" time and tutorial period alleviated much of her stress, she said. ("Flex" time is a mandatory free period during which students can get academic help from teachers or study on campus.)
She and her peers have also found Gunn's new wellness center a welcoming place to relax. Students are allowed to go to the wellness center during class if they're feeling distressed; coloring books, tea and mental health staff are on call for anyone who visits.
"It's a safe space for people to go to," Singh said.
In middle school, Suh didn't know much about mental health, but at Gunn, she found herself having conversations about it with a variety of students and teachers.
"At least for my friend group, we're very supportive, and mental health isn't really a taboo subject," she said. "But I also think Gunn and the upperclassmen have a lot of influence on that — being open about it."
She acknowledged that though school programs launched to address student well-being are well-intentioned, they're not always executed well. But even small things, she said, like "Random Acts of Kindness Day" and encouraging chalk art messages displayed around campus, have a positive impact on students.
The majority of students interviewed for this article felt that mental health awareness had increased on campus and that people were more considerate when talking about mental illness or emotional challenges.
All students described the opening of Gunn's wellness center as a significant improvement. Students feel more comfortable talking about mental health with its addition, Singh said.
And it contributes to the message that school is not just school, Sorensen said.
"School is not just your classes and doing well and contests," she said. "They want school to be more than that — a community."
That's not to say mental health stigma has been erased completely, Navjeevan said. She still sees stigma in many everyday interactions, such as the way people use certain words.
"Like when you see the word 'triggered' all over Instagram ... or someone says, 'Oh, she's so bipolar,' but really she's just angry at you," she said. "To see it made fun of is very hurtful."
Though stigma still exists, Navjeevan said, teachers and students are more slowly bringing about change through dialogue and action.
Her Spanish class, for example, often required impromptu presentations. For Navjeevan, who has generalized anxiety disorder, this was a huge source of stress. Though she "dealt with it" her first month of sophomore year, her teacher told students to talk to her if they ever needed anything, and she did, explaining that she'd feel more comfortable having more time to prepare.
Navjeevan's teacher complied immediately and responded, "You don't even have to present in front of other people; you can come in during after school or lunch or whenever works."
Hom said he believes the best way to effect change in this area is through personal stories and experiences, such as student newspaper The Oracle's "Changing the Narrative" series, launched in 2015. In the series, students and staff write personal columns on overcoming obstacles such as mental illness, low self-esteem and need for perfection.
Hom said as this year's student body president he plans to create other initiatives to combat academic competition and stigma.
Early this August, the Gunn community was left coping with another tragedy when a senior died by suicide. Now, Suh said, many students are afraid other peers will harm themselves.
In response, teachers have actively shown emotional vulnerability with students and provided safe environments for students to process what they feel, Suh said.
The recent suicide, Singh said, means the community needs to be all the more committed to mental health efforts in Palo Alto.
This year, students are hopeful that the implementation of a new social-emotional learning curriculum, the Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality (SELF) program, will continue the progress in mental health awareness. SELF, which Gunn and Paly are piloting this year, uses interactive lessons and activities to teach students how to support each other, develop self-awareness, build relationships, resolve conflicts and prepare for college and the workforce.
Once the social-emotional learning curriculum is implemented district-wide, students from kindergarten through high school will be developing their wellness and coping skills, said Navjeevan, who was involved in bringing the curriculum to the district and serves this year as student wellness commissioner alongside Singh.
"You start the learning when you're 6, and it'll become much more of a lifetime learning," Navjeevan said.
As administrators and staff transition into new positions and initiatives at Gunn, Howell said the student body also hopes any future changes will be transparent and incorporate students' voices.
"It's not hopeless," he said. Long-term change is "just going to take time and a lot of effort and a lot of just trying to normalize everything."
Howell pointed to the culture of drugs and tobacco as an example of change in cultural awareness. When hippie culture was more mainstream, tobacco, cigarettes and smoking used to be cool. After people realized it causes cancer and was unhealthy, the mindset of the country changed, he said, and laws were put in place.
"It took a very long time for (the culture surrounding) tobacco to change, just like it took a very long time for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to become a diagnosis ... but it is possible," he said.
"Mental illnesses are not uncommon at all, really — it's something almost everyone will encounter in their life," he added. "You have your physical health and your mental health, and you should be trying to maintain both, ideally."
The movement will depend on students who care, said Sorensen — those who continually speak up and say, "This is something that's an important part of our lives."
"You come into Gunn knowing this was a part of our school's history, and I don't think people will forget that," she said. "I think people are aware of the pain from the past, and I think people understand the importance of this kind of work in preventing it."
Shawna Chen is a former editorial intern and Gunn High School graduate. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
Additional resources can be found here.