Woodside High School senior Valentina Lovazzano joined the student advisory board at Menlo Park's youth mental health advocacy organization SafeSpace midway through her junior year, after she finally found help for debilitating anxiety problems that had at times made it hard for her to leave the house.
Once Lovazzano got the help she needed, "the first thing I wanted to do was reach out to other people," she says. "I wanted everyone to feel it's a normal thing, you're not alone. We're all teenagers, we're going to go through stuff. It's going to be OK," she says.
Now Lovazzano and a group of other students who serve on SafeSpace's student advisory board are sharing those messages in five short videos SafeSpace is releasing this week to coincide with National Suicide Prevention Week.
SafeSpace has emphasized youth involvement since it opened in Menlo Park just over a year ago. It was founded by Stacey Drazan of Woodside, Susan Bird of Menlo Park and Liesl Moldow of Atherton, who had all experienced mental health problems in their own families.
The organization now partners with 16 local middle and high schools where 55 student members of the SafeSpace youth advisory board work with teachers and administrators to develop programs at each school. Students must apply annually for a place on the advisory board, and are trained in youth mental health first aid and encouraged to come up with proposals for their schools that incorporate their own experiences.
Inspired by 'Angst'
The video project began after youth advisory board members previewed "Angst," a documentary about anxiety that's being shown in local high schools this fall. "The kids said this is a really good documentary, but ... it's just too long for teens," says Lesley Martin, managing director of the SafeSpace Center at 708 Oak Grove Ave.
Inspired to try making their own short videos about mental health, the students applied for a grant from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Community Fund to work collaboratively with a video team from Riekes Center in Menlo Park.
"One way to capture attention is definitely to ask us to watch something," says Lovazzano.
Martin says the students told her they wanted the videos "to give hope and promise and share our stories."
"All five videos were defined by the teens," she says.
Lovazzano and fellow advisory board member Julia Robbin, a recent graduate of Nueva Upper School in San Mateo, were hired as interns by SafeSpace to spend the summer writing the video scripts and organizing the hours of raw footage shot by the Riekes Center crew.
Riekes Center media department intern Winslow Perry of Woodside directed the videos and Riekes instructors Drew Annis and Jonah Moshammer assisted with filming and editing.
Members of SafeSpace's student advisory board tell their own stories in the less than four-minute videos. In "Reach Out," students talk about how they have dealt with mental health challenges and encourage watchers to open up about their own concerns. "I have all these amazing friends who I talk to a lot," one says. "I'm really lucky."
"There is no weakness in reaching out," one boys says. "Sometimes it's OK to cry it out," another boy says. The students' faces and voices convey sometimes raw, and very real, emotions.
"Even when I didn't want to be alive, there were people who wanted me to be alive, and that was reason enough to keep going and trying," says another girl.
Each video ends with the SafeSpace.org website address and resources for students:
• For information, StarVista - www.onyourmind.net;
• For help via text - Crisis Text Line, text the word "HOME" to 741741; and
• For telephone support - the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255).
While students created the videos, psychiatrists, psychologists and pediatricians reviewed them. "It was all thumbs up," Martin says. "They liked the fact that it was very relatable to teens."
At safespace.org/new-conversations, the videos are posted along with information sheets and discussion questions for each.
Lovazzano says she thinks the videos came out "great." Some, she says, "hit close to home or can be a little hard to hear."
But, she says, "they are hopeful" and "something we really need right now."
Alina Kalmeyer, a Menlo Park resident and youth advisory board member from Menlo-Atherton High School, says the videos have impact "because the youth were given a chance to come up with the topics."
Other student projects
The videos are only one of the many projects the SafeSpace student advisory board members have initiated.
Kalmeyer says she joined last year because of the experience she'd had as an eighth-grader when a close friend discussed thoughts of suicide and Kalmeyer didn't know how to help her. Kalmeyer says she wanted, "to make sure no one else had to suffer alone, or no one else would be put in my position" of trying to help a friend without knowledge or resources.
She says her friend is now doing well.
Kalmeyer and the other Menlo-Atherton board members wrote a proposal for school administrators outlining problems they saw, and a plan for action.
"While living in an environment filled with motivation and creativity inspires success, it also puts extreme pressure on youth in the area. This pressure comes in the form of struggles with stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem," they wrote.
"Too many students feel that they are alone in their struggles, or do not know who to turn to for help," they wrote.
"Our goal ... is to stimulate conversation regarding mental wellness, eliminate stigma surrounding mental illness, and promote help seeking behaviors," they wrote.
The students are now helping to write a new plan for freshman orientation including some of their ideas, and sponsoring student panels on mental health for other students and adults.
"I think it's important to educate adults about what is going on," Kalmeyer says.
Luc Yansouni, a resident of Los Altos, is a junior and one of the representatives of Atherton's Sacred Heart Prep on the youth advisory board. This year at his school, the youth advisory board members are helping to plan the school's annual spring "social justice teach-in" day, which will be devoted to youth mental health.
"It's really an opportunity to teach the entire school about the importance of mental health," he says.
Colby Cheung, a Woodside Priory student who lives in Menlo Park, says he joined the student advisory board after he had eight concussions in seven months while playing water polo. "I had waves of depression and anxiety," he says. SafeSpace allowed him to "be able to help others in the same position I was in," he says.
This is the first year for Priory to partner with SafeSpace, Cheung says, so he's still working with administrators and trying to recruit more advisory board members.
"My favorite aspect of SafeSpace is how student-driven it is," he says, which makes it different from many other organizations students can volunteer with. "Here you use critical thinking, and you're actually doing stuff yourself," he says.
A new person
As for Lovazzano, she says getting the help she needed and getting involved in SafeSpace has changed her.
"The person I am today is totally different than the person I was a year ago," she says. Dealing with stress is "a hundred times easier," she says. "I really know how to overcome it. It just took the right help."
A therapist taught her relaxation techniques, and "key things to say to yourself in the moment," and she has medication to take if she has a severe panic attack. "It's all how you think, and changing your thought process," she says.
What Lovazzano is most proud of, though, is being named a "Safe School Ambassador" by a vote of her fellow students. "It made me feel great, because that's who I want to be. I want to be the person that anyone feels they can go to," she says. "If I can make them feel safe, that's great."
The students' work with SafeSpace, Lovazzano says, "is going to pay off in the end if you know that you've helped at least one other person."
Helping to educate others about mental health "is the most important thing any of us could do," she says.