Written by Katie Russell
As the Palo Alto community has experienced firsthand recently, we have a problem with mental health. We have lost friends, and, in the aftermath, both alumni and current students have come forward to open up about their own struggles with mental health. In some cases, school and stress have been factors, and in some they have not. It is partly for this reason that mental illness is so difficult to understand. Mental illness varies from person to person, and often day to day.
Mental illness is often contrasted with a broken arm. If a friend broke his or her arm, it would be obvious to take him or her to the hospital and seek immediate treatment. It is considered even ludicrous not to. The question then is, why don’t we act in the same way when someone comes forth with a mental illness? While we should treat mental illness with the same urgency and sympathy as we would someone with a broken arm, it is clear why we don’t. A broken arm looks more or less the same whoever it happens to. It has the same effects and manifests itself in the same way no matter what. We can learn to recognize and treat it, and can then treat every case of it. Mental health just doesn’t work this way. Unfortunately, rather than trying to understand mental health and its intricacies, it is easier for the general public to look at it as something that happens to other people. As more of our friends and acquaintances open up about their experiences with mental health, we can clear up some of the misconceptions about mental illness that are so rampant. For example, one misconception is the understandable belief that people who seem happy or content wouldn’t be dealing with depression or any other kind of mental illness. These misconceptions are not believed maliciously; most of the time it is just that mental illness really is difficult to diagnose. People, especially teenagers, tend to be very good at hiding things they do not want to reveal. Due to these variables and difficulties, people who suffer from mental illnesses are often derided as “attention-seekers” and not taken seriously.
According to the California Healthy Kids Survey from 2013-14, 14 percent of Gunn students, or around 280 people, had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months. 22.5 percent of students at Gunn, or 450 people, reported chronic sad or hopeless feelings, and the percentage of students reporting these feelings increased every year from freshman to senior years. Given that these numbers are out of over 1900 students, this is not a tiny minority that is experiencing these issues, and action must be taken to address all those at Gunn who suffer from mental illness of any kind.
The first step to ridding mental health of its stigma is acknowledging our attitudes toward it. According to the Center for Disease Control, 57 percent of all adults believe that people are generally caring and sympathetic towards people with mental illness but only 25 percent of adults with mental illness feel the same. Although the Gunn community, and the area in general, considers itself very open-minded and progressive, the truth is that discrimination, even subtle or unconscious, still very much exists against mental illnesses.
Some believe that while mental health is important, it is not Gunn’s place to intervene in mental health issues. However, mental illness is often closely linked to stress, and though stress is not typically the sole cause for mental health issues, it certainly does not help. Increased stress tends to exacerbate the effects of mental illness. Additionally, school is about more than just academics, and can actually help improve understanding of mental health. School can serve as a kind of safe place where counseling is available to all free of charge and with some anonymity. It is very common for kids to feel unprepared or unable to discuss these kinds of issues with their family or even friends, and so being able to provide a safe, secure place is absolutely necessary. School is a place of education. Even for those who do not experience issues with mental health themselves, Gunn can educate kids about mental health and help to combat the stigma. Every student at Gunn should have the opportunity to participate in free and open Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) and Sources of Strength (SOS) trainings. These training sessions help students both identify and help students at risk of suicide, as well as increase awareness about resources on and off campus.
Gunn already offers some very valuable resources, such as Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS). However, for several reasons, it is not accessible enough; its location inside the Attendance Office is not immediately obvious and many Gunn students are not even aware of its existence or the specific services ACS that provides. Recent actions, such as the “Refer a Friend” box in the Student Activities Center, certainly are helpful, but more should be done to promote ACS, such as being able to make an appointment online.
Gunn has taken steps in the right direction towards combating the stigma of mental illness, but there are still many opportunities for the guidance department to step in. With a community that is better educated about mental health, our future can hold a more positive environment, one in which losing friends is no longer frequent.