If you want to find out what's troubling local teens, go straight to the source.
A panel of teens from Mountain View and neighboring cities gathered at the Community Health Awareness Council headquarters earlier this month to explain what it's like to be in the high-stress high school environment that has mental health as a top issue in student well-being. Improved counseling services and better relationships with parents emerged as their top recommendations to the packed room.
The May 7 event is first of three that aims to give high school students a chance to explain directly to parents, grandparents and CHAC therapists why they think students are struggling with stress and anxiety. They pointed to a combination of pressure from parents and peers, along with fears of the future, as key reasons for widespread depression among teens in the area.
Teen mental health is a hot-button issue for many parents, students and school staff in the wake of recent teen suicides by students in the Palo Alto Unified School District, which prompted the first of three teen panel discussions, according to Hala Kleinknecht, a CHAC staff member and teacher at Stanford.
"With all the recent suicides at Paly and Gunn (high schools) we really felt like there needs to be a voice for these young people and talk about what its like to be them. They're educating us," Kleinknecht said.
Research shows that about one-third of teen stress comes from schools, Kleinknecht said, and parents are unfamiliar with the high number of academic options that students can take and overtake in today's high schools on a preparatory path towards college.
At a similar teen speaker forum hosted in Mountain View last month by the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, many parents also appeared unaware of what it's like growing up here. When a crowd member asked the dozens of students in the room how many of their parents grew up in the Bay Area, no one raised a hand.
Rachel Hurst, a freshman at Mountain View High School, said growing up in Silicon Valley makes students like herself feel like they have big shoes to fill. Amid the major success stories of new tech companies, students feel a sense of steep competition from fellow students. All the pressure, Hurst said, can sometimes lead students to completely "tune out."
Those "clown-sized" shoes that students have to fill are compounded by plenty of other societal pressures, said Alta Vista sophomore Giulia DiSomma, including skyrocketing rent and the drought, as well as the perception that the "only way to make it" is to get good grades and get into a "fancy" college.
Simon Leak, a junior in the Middle College program who attended Los Altos High School for two years, said the relative affluence in the area also adds to the pressure of expected success, particularly when the high school parking lot has a significant number of Tesla, Porsche and BMW cars parked in it every day.
The students were anything but fatalistic. Alicia Holland, a senior at the Middle College program at Foothill College, compared teen depression to a downward slope with "plenty of points along the way" for help from parents, teachers and others to intervene and help students before its too late.
Whether teaching and counseling staff, and the school climate allows for that kind of intervention is another story. As a former student at Gunn High School, Holland criticized teachers and counselors at the school for often being anything but a supportive resource, and said they were known to make discouraging comments to students regarding their academic prospects.
"I know of students who went to guidance counselors with B's and C's and come out being told they're not going to go to college," she said.
There are a handful of guidance counselors at Gunn, Holland recalled, as well as one associated student body counselor with a weak presence on the campus only at the school a few days out of the week. That kind of school climate may work for some people, she said, but it didn't work for her.
"I'm not trying to demonize Gunn counseling, but it needs progress," Holland said.
While the suicides in Palo Alto have left school administrators, parents and therapists scrambling to find a solution to the problem, Holland insisted that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for kids. She later indicated that the recent decision to eliminate the early morning "zero period" option for students is the wrong direction.
"All these kids are all such individual cases. Globbing them all as one is just so unfair," Holland said.
Holland suggested that the primary culprit is teachers assigning too much homework and expecting too much, and that it's time to veer away from the discussion on whether or not students get enough sleep.
While throwing out zero period could be seen as a misguided approach, Leak said the decision shows school administrators are mindful of student mental health and are willing to give "fixing the problem a shot."
The responsibility doesn't fall squarely on the schools either, Hurst said, and it's up to parents to strike a careful balance between being supportive and maintaining an open dialogue with their kids and not grilling them with a mental health questionnaire or getting over-involved in academic coursework.
"Even if you don't have a great relationship with your students and kids, you need to start building them," Hurst said. "it really does help us."
The first of many
The teen speaker forum this month will be the first of three in a quarterly series, with the next one expected to be in October, Kleinknecht said. The series, she said, makes up just one part of a new program she will be starting at CHAC called the Leadership Empowerment Program, which will teach teens leadership skills and will include a component on suicide prevention. Kleinknecht teaches leadership classes at Stanford, and introduced the program to CHAC this year.
The program is expected to include after-school sessions where teens meet weekly for peer-to-peer meetings.
Finding students to talk about tough, personal issues regarding mental health wasn't difficult at all, Kleinknecht said, and plenty of teachers and students had teens who were ready to speak for the May 7 event.
"Teenagers are amazingly receptive at this point in their development. They're breaking away and trying to find their own identity, and during this time learn themselves and how to really empower their own gifts," she said.