In the pursuit of wellness: What can we do better moving forward?


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 initia-tive 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 series has spanned three issues of The Oracle. You can find the first installment in our February issue and the second installment in our March issue.

This article is the third of a three-part series called In the Pursuit of Wellness, an investigative reporting initiative on Gunn’s efforts towards mental wellness. Inthis installment, The Oracle discusses plans the wellness team has for the future and goals that they have set.


Two wellness groups built on student input, Reach Out Care Know (ROCK) and Sources of Strength (SOS), always strive towards increased participation. For both groups, annual improvements are strongly based on feedback from the community. “At the end of the year, but often a couple times throughout the year, we survey students and ask for their thoughts,” ROCK advisor Paul Dunlap said. “[Wellness] has to have the investment of the people who it’s affecting. If something is intended to build community and to give students a greater support network, they have to be involved in it.”

These groups have also worked on a wide array of events. Senior Meghna Singh has found that students respond better to events that involve physical objects rather than ones centering around worksheets or papers with mental health-related activities. “[Students] can do an interactive activity, like making a stress ball, and then while they’re making it, we can talk about things like, ‘What are stressors in your life?’ or ‘How can you use this stress ball going forward?’” she said.

With these methods in mind, both wellness groups continue to actively strengthen the support network in our community, with the help of existing and new participants.

Wellness Center

One of the main issues that the Wellness Center has faced in the past has been lack of student usage. Math teacher Daisy Renazco believes that social judgements might dissuade students from visiting the Wellness Center. “Stigma is definitely a part of it,” she said. “Some students might feel like if they go to the Wellness Center, then it means that they have ‘serious issues.’”

Wellness Coordinator Genevae Dixon is also aware of the assumptions surrounding the Wellness Center. She hopes to spread awareness about the Wellness Center’s additional offerings. “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 into [the Wellness Center],” Dixon said. “People automatically assume that ‘I go the Wellness Center because I have something that’s going on.’ No, you can be here to get a snack. You can be here to get tea. You could be here to do a lot of different things. It’s not just that there’s something really awful going on in your life.”

Singh has been a lead advocate for the expansion of mental health resources on campus throughout the new Wellness Center’s construction process. The new center, which will open next year, is in the same building as the Student Activities Center (SAC). The new building will offer both academic and wellness counseling, tea, stress-relieving activities and snacks, as well as the pre-existing resources of the SAC.

According to Singh, having a “one-stop shop” for all student needs will increase student use of the Wellness Center. “What I’ve realized is that some people still don’t want to walk into the Wellness Center because there’s a stigma of just opening up those doors,” she said. “But if you’re going into the [SAC], or you’re going to see that building, it could be for whatever reason, whether it’s academic counseling, mental health counseling that you need, or if you just want to get a snack, or you’re ordering a dance ticket. Nobody’s going to know; nobody’s going to judge you.”

Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality

Since last year, the SELF team has revised the packaged lesson plans with the goal of making them more constructive and valuable for students. The new lesson schedule, implemented this year, consists of four units with alternating lessons focusing on relationship building, check-ins, school culture and direct social-emotional learning instruction.

The SELF team is also working on including more student input in their lesson plans by incorporating feedback from a committee of juniors and seniors in their lesson plans. “I think using more student-designed curriculum will hopefully increase [support],” Carlomagno said.

Parent Involvement

Staff involved in wellness also wish to increase parent awareness and participation. “I think we are doing a lot, but I also think that people need to be doing work at home,” Carlomagno said. “It takes a village. We’re not the only stakeholder in this situation. I hope that families are participating in wellness, too.”

For the past four years, SOS has hosted parent information nights with the intent of promoting wellness conversations. The event has been successful in educating the parents in attendance. “Parents come, and they hear what they can do to support their student in these issues,” Dunlap said. “That’s one of the few times where we can give them tangible ways. Here’s what you can do. Listen to them right now. Learn the language, learn about the activities they’re doing and ask them about it. The greatest involvement is if there can be a conversation.”

Still, one of the main difficulties with reaching parents is the range of parent-child relationships. “I don’t think there’s one recipe that will work for everyone,” Dunlap said. “I think it depends on the parents’ relationship with the student and on the student’s comfort level on campus. But I know that some involvement is necessary.”

With family support as a key element of student wellness, the wellness team is continually brainstorming ways to reach parents. They hope to give parents the resources to connect their children with help and to know how to deal with any issues they may face. “We’re looking to step up and improve the way that we reach out and educate parents about mental health,” Wellness Outreach Worker Lauren Rocha said. “That will be a long-term goal, looking into the next school year as well and providing more opportunities for parents to get what they need to help their students who are going through things.”

Student Body Outreach

Another focus of wellness improvements is reaching the entire student body. As an overarching influence on the community, wellness impacts the lives of all students and staff. In order to spread awareness and strengthen community support, the goal is to increase involvement.

From Dunlap’s observation, participation in ROCK and SOS is well distributed throughout grade levels. This is mainly a result of friend and sibling connections.

However, Carlomagno believes that representation within the programs can improve. “I would really like to help more of our historically underrepresented students get involved in our wellness programs, but it just hasn’t happened yet,” she said.

Carlomagno notes that the wellness team has focused on incorporating wellness into the lives of as many students as possible. For example, every student ID card has numbers for crisis hotlines and support services printed on the back in order to make these resources easily accessible for all.

Dunlap hopes to increase overall community acceptance of the wellness efforts. “My long-term goals are related to getting as many people as possible to recognize their investment in [wellness] in some way that is meaningful to them,” he said. “More iterations will give more people different ways of learning and expressing what they’re learning in this area.”

Other General Improvements

Moving forward, wellness remains a progressive journey. “I think we always have more work to do,” Dunlap said. “We are closer to a campus-wide conversation about these important issues. If we think about it as shared language, that is a very important early step to spreading information. Even the word ‘wellness’ means more now than it did before.”

Singh agrees that a shared language surrounding mental health increases the school’s capacity for discussing crucial issues within the community. “The more people that are aware of the language around mental health, they know what Sources of Strength is, they know what organizations we have on campus, the better it’s going to be,” Singh said. “It won’t be like ‘oh, what’s mental health?’ You’ll just be able to already dive deep into that conversation and add to it.”

While the role of wellness in student life is always changing, Dunlap stresses the importance of individual involvement. “I think we need everyone to care,” he said. “Ideally, this wouldn’t have to be taught discretely, because it should be a part of everything that we do. When wellness works, it’s not a stand-alone unit. It works in athletics. It works in academics. It works in spiritual life. It’s all of those things.”

With this in mind, wellness requires the collaboration of many. “The wellbeing of the Gunn community—students, staff, parents—is a concern of every single one of us,” Dunlap said.

Dixon emphasized the importance of having a team effort to improve wellness. “We need to be open to allowing those things to occur, whether it be in the classroom, whether that be here at the wellness center, whether that’s at home, in the community, wherever it is that we are coming together as a group, and as a school to really say, this is something that’s important to us,” she said.

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

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 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