In the pursuit of wellness: What’s been done so far?


During the 2009-2010 school year, Palo Alto lost six students to suicide. Our community lost another four students in the 2013-2014 year. Following these tragedies, our school, district and community made various efforts to better understand what the causes were and take preventive measures.

Nearly a decade after the first suicide contagion, The Oracle is taking a look at what has changed between now and then. In the Pursuit of Wellness is an investigative reporting initiative that aims to answer the following questions:

I. What have we done to prevent suicides and improve mental health?

II. Are these measures really working?

III. What can we do better moving forward?

This article is the first of a three-part series called In the Pursuit of Wellness, an investigative reporting initiative on Gunn’s efforts towards mental wellness. In this installment, The Oracle focuses on what wellness initiatives have been implemented on campus.

Early Mental Health Initiatives

Of the mental health initiatives at Gunn, the oldest is the club Reach Out, Care, Know (ROCK). In 2009, classmates and friends of the first student lost to suicide created ROCK to improve peer-to-peer relations.

English teacher Paul Dunlap was asked to be the club’s advisor early in the process. “One of the best decisions I’ve made in my life is simply saying yes [to that],” he said.

Together, Dunlap and the students found an expert to teach them about peer wellness. Due to the publicity surrounding the suicides, they had many options. “We went to our principal and said, ‘Have you heard of resources in the community?’” Dunlap said. “And she said, ‘How much time do you have?’ She opened her email box and had innumerable emails of self-proclaimed experts offering help.”

After searching through the potential experts, the ROCK founders chose a then psychologist at Gunn to train the group of students. The first year’s efforts consisted of a successful eight-week study on how to offer support to their peers.

At the start of the second year of ROCK, the national youth suicide prevention program Sources of Strength contacted Dunlap about a possible partnership. This program focuses on developing protective influences for young adults, including healthy activities, mentors and positive friends.

Following what Dunlap would later call his second-best “yes,” Sources of Strength held its first well-attended training for students and adults. “We got a great group the first time around,” Dunlap said. “There were almost 70 students packed in the library doing this training, having lunch together, laughing, making these big posters and getting really excited.”

Roughly nine years later, both wellness groups are still active. Dunlap remains an adult advisor and leader, enjoying his work towards building a stronger community. “In the face of trauma, it’s easier to freak out and complain and criticize than to take positive steps,” he said. “What I love about these two programs is that the emphasis is on what we can do to heal and protect.”

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

On Friday, May 3, 2017, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released their Epi-Aid report on youth suicide in Santa Clara County. The report gave an overview of mental health initiatives within the county, data across multiple demographics and recommendations for improvements.

Following the second suicide contagion in 2015, community members involved in Project Safety Net, in conjunction with the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), observed the CDC conducting research for a similar situation in Fairfax, Virginia. After that report came out, community parents requested that the CDC conduct an investigation of mental health in PAUSD.

Health Officer and Director of Santa Clara County Public Health Department Dr. Sara Cody formally asked the state for help filing a request for an investigation from the CDC, despite being unsure if the CDC was going to answer all of the community’s questions. “They already have a set of evidence-based recommendations for both documented protective and risk factors for suicide and suicidal behaviors before they go crunch the data,” she said. “It wasn’t particularly tailored to the uniqueness of the community.”

According to Dunlap, it was initially unsettling to know that the CDC was investigating the school. “Most of us only think of the CDC for physical diseases, outbreaks of diseases,” he said. “It felt like uncomfortable scrutiny, even though I and many others understood the big picture of why it was necessary.”

Though the study was neither long-term nor in-depth about the school’s current programs, the CDC report states that although the suicide rate in Palo Alto is the highest in Santa Clara county, it is still below the national average and that 65 percent of all mental health programs reviewed were provided by PAUSD. According to Dunlap, the study validated the significance of the programs students and staff had been working on. “I was able to take some of that information [from the CDC report] to my leadership teams, peer leaders in Sources of Strength and the ROCK leadership team and say, ‘If you had any reason to wonder if the work you’re doing matters, look at this,’” he said.

In terms of what can be improved on, the report stressed the importance of assuring that youth have access to quality mental health services and to shift some of the focus to preventive measures.

Campus Measures

Gunn’s Wellness Center was first opened in the 2016- 2017 school year, offering access to individual and group therapy, mental health support, as well as a space to relax and take a break with tea and snacks. The Wellness Center will be expanding, consolidating with counseling and moving into the new building next school year. “I think just having a Wellness Center in and of itself is a huge initiative and a huge step forward in providing support for students,” Wellness Coordinator Genavae Dixon said.

Although it was not directly implemented because of the reports, the social-emotional learning (SEL) program titled Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality (SELF) also aims to improve student wellness through student- to-mentor connections. “The hope is that it’s the surest way we can guarantee that every child is connected to a trusted adult on campus,” SEL Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) Courtney Carlomagno said. “If you’re not someone who’s involved in things, there’s a chance that you won’t have that adult connection. SELF’s mentorship and relationship piece guarantees that everyone gets connected, no matter interests or involvement.”

After the CDC report was released, Dunlap says people generally started taking programs such as ROCK, SELF and Sources of Strength more seriously. Additionally, he says that people have been more open to discussing mental health as a whole.

According to Dixon, the school community has made steps to decrease stigma surrounding seeking support in wellness over the past years. “There is a shift in [visiting the Wellness Center] becoming more normalized. It’s okay: we all need help, we all get stressed, we all get overwhelmed,” Dixon said. “This is a place that I can come and I can be and just kind of relax.”

In particular, staff members have become more supportive of wellness efforts. “I think we have a lot more support from our teachers and our staff that runs really on board with wellness and what it looks like,” Dixon said. “I think I’ve been able to do a lot more activities that I’ve gotten a lot more feedback [about] from teachers, staff and students about how wellness works and how it can work for them.”

Identifying Goals

There is still work to be done around decreasing stigma for students seeking help, both from other students and from parents. The Wellness Center has been working on spreading information to parents to ensure that they are adequately prepared to aid and support their students. “We’re looking to really step up and improve the way that we reach out and educate parents about mental health,” Wellness Outreach Worker Lauren Rocha said. “And that will be kind of a long term goal, looking into next school year as well, providing more opportunities for parents to get the things they need to help their students who are going through things.”

The Wellness Center also seeks to make students more comfortable seeking its services. “I think that we want to be able to all for all 2000 students to at some point walk in the Wellness Center and feel safe doing so,” Dixon said. “I think a lot of work that we have to do is still around the stigma and breaking down those barriers so that students don’t feel like they are being stigmatized by walking in here.”

While wellness is a difficult subject, it must be addressed. “There may always be a stigma about talking about these things in different communities,” Dunlap said. “But in my observation, more people are talking about it more comfortably than I’ve seen, and I think that’s always good. Problems never get better if you don’t talk about them.”

If you are worried about yourself or a friend, to be directed to professional help, contact:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Life- line: 1-800-273-8255, 24/7 access to trained counselors
  • School counselor/psychologist
  • Your doctor
  • and click “Get Help” for yourself or for a friend
  • If the threat is immediate, call 911