Written by Aren Raisinghani
In this opinion piece, I discuss recent events candidly in the hope that you, the reader, will understand my insights and proposals. Please feel free to reach out to me. I, along with the entirety of Gunn’s Student Executive Council, am here to serve and represent you.
Last week, we received tragic news—another Titan’s life was lost. This is the third time in the span of a few months in which we have received news of a Titan—past or present—who will no longer be with us. These heart-wrenching events have taken a toll on us as friends, students, staff, and members of the external community. Although our sadness is pervasive, our response to the events has made me even prouder to be a Titan. Over the last week, Titans have come together and united to spread positivity and serve as pillars of support for not only their friends, but anyone in the community. The notion that we stand united regardless of circumstance truly demonstrates what it means to be a Titan, and the fact that we spread positivity and unity in times of such adversity proves our resilience and sets our school—and community—apart. Over the past week, the Palo Alto community has mobilized, striving toward action. Students, parents, faculty, administration and various Palo Altans participated in formal and informal meetings to voice opinions on how to prevent further loss.
While many of the discussions were productive, there was a noticeable amount of finger-pointing. Gunn—and, by extension, the district—once more came under fire for its academic policy and rigorous curriculum. Many seem to believe that if the school were to alleviate student stress through policy changes, suicide would no longer occur.
What some consider a toxic educational atmosphere is not fueled by pure academia, but a consuming, competitive mindset that seems to be shared by much of the community. The school doesn’t need any more changes in policy; its constituents need a culture revitalization. This shift in perspective is a collective responsibility, but those who can make the greatest impact are often the most overlooked—the students. The Gunn Student Body has the greatest impact on the school social climate; it can (and should) maintain a supportive environment in which each individual thrives. Furthermore, although academic pressure is prevalent at Gunn, it is not the sole—or main—reason for teen suicide. According to Dr. Shashank Joshi, a psychiatrist at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, 80 to 90 percent of students who take their own lives have mental health issues. At the senior parent meeting on January 26, Dr. Joshi stated that suicide is more of a mental health issue than an academic stress issue. Combating academic pressure may reduce stress, but not necessarily contribute to suicide prevention.
Gunn’s current efforts are primarily geared toward achieving mental health wellness and awareness at the high school level. The school offers numerous peer-to-peer counseling and wellness groups, on-hand counselors and a supportive network of faculty and students. It is one of few high schools with an entire section of its website dedicated to “Crisis Resources.” These initiatives have been effective; however, moving forward, it is imperative that Gunn continues to consider new, different approaches (in addition to approaches already established) when addressing topics as complex as suicide and mental health. The most important change in Gunn’s approach should be to ensure that all students have the opportunity to be included in any pertinent discussions at the school and district level. Because numerous PAUSD students participated at the School Board meeting on January 27, officials and the extended community were able to more easily gauge and understand the students’ perspective—insight that ultimately helped foster proactive discussions. Setting an informed community dialogue is pivotal, as it leads to deliberation of new effective, implementable programs and initiatives dedicated to suicide prevention and promotion of mental wellness.
Of the many ideas discussed last week, I found a potential Middle School Program and Gunn Buddy Program the most intriguing—I hope to implement them in the near future. They were discussed (and well-received) by Gunn’s Student Executive Council and brought to the attention of the School Board. The Middle School Program will be targeted at all PAUSD middle schools, as the Gunn Student Body is predominantly composed of students who have attended a middle school in the district. The mandatory program will take place during advisory period, teaching students about mental illness and helping de-stigmatize it (stigma surrounding mental illness is one of the main reasons why those afflicted are hesitant to seek help). The program will also drive the message to middle schoolers that suicide is not—ever—a viable option. Reaching out to middle school students is ideal, as, compared to high school students, they are relatively more impressionable. Influencing one’s mindset early on has potential benefits. The Buddy Program will be a mandatory program that pairs each underclassman with an upperclassman buddy. The pairings could be Freshman-Junior, Sophomore-Senior. The program’s primary goal is to give students a sense of security that they always have at least one individual looking out for them, so that students never feel isolated or alone. A curriculum would be established for the Buddy Program to ensure that students could bond during structured time in a classroom environment as well as outside of that environment.
While the ideas for new programs are still in their infancy, it’s awesome that they were conceived so rapidly due to progressive, open discussions. That’s what I love about this—our spirit is unwavering, even in times of hardship.
We are Titans; we are indomitable; we will get through this.