In the Dark
Sources aren’t named for the purpose of protecting their identity.
Suicide isn’t a new to high school students. We always hear stories of those who struggled under the weight of social pressure, academic stress, family issues ― the list goes on. These teenagers wrestle through a wide variety of battles, but they all experience the similar pain and isolation that mental illnesses such as depression invoke. Depression hits close to home at MVHS, where it is not uncommon to meet a student who has struggled with the disorder.
That junior girl you see walking by, laughing with her friends.
Only a few know about her suicide attempt last month, in late September. Not many know that she’s attended Aspire, a 10-week intensive outpatient program that runs daily from 3 to 6 p.m. where she learned coping skills to reduce her suicidal and self-harm tendencies. She now attends Awake Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a weekly group therapy where she re-learns the mental coping skills she was exposed to in Aspire.
At first, she found the repetitive nature of these programs annoying, seeing little benefit from being constantly taught the same skills over and over again, despite the fact that she had already understood them. But after Aspire ended, she has grown to appreciate this relentless reinforcing nature, believing that it has genuinely improved her mental health over time.
“My goal when I was more depressed than I am now,” the junior said, “was that I wanted skills to come to my head first, instead of cutting, so I think that using skills is really important. It can save your life.”
This junior is just one of the many at MVHS who have struggled with suicide.
That sophomore girl, joking around with her group, laughing so hard that her knees give in as she drops the cookie she holds.
Only four of her closest friends know about her suicide attempt in November. Only these four know the way she picks at her skin when she’s anxious, or the way she pulls at her hair when she’s stressed. This sophomore constantly reassures her family it’s just the anxiety that she has struggled with in the past few years, afraid to tell her parents about her attempt.
Suicide also the second leading cause of death in patients from ages 15 to 34. And yet, as Megan Taylor, a psychologist from Palo Alto Therapy who specializes in issues such as teenage mental health, says, suicide is still an unknown topic.
The motives behind suicide, the inspiration, the methods are still not understood. To this day, suicide remains an enigma. But one thing all specialists agree on – talking about it is the pathway to potential healing.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America — it’s an issue that has affected humans through all ages and from all countries. At MVHS, this topic hits closer to home than some realize.
A Guiding Light
Fifteen minutes might not seem like a long time — but it depends on how you use those minutes. You could mindlessly scroll through your Instagram feed or play a few rounds of Temple Run on your phone, fixated on that small, bright screen. Or, World Core teacher Robyn Brostowicz says, you could head outside for a 15 minute walk to clear your head.
Throughout the school year, Brostowicz recommends different methods of destressing for her students to try, such as taking a 15 minute walk. She acknowledges that she can’t control what students do with their time outside of school, so she tries to give additional support while they are at school. For example, she frequently has students choose “Random Acts of Kindness” out of a jar to perform.
“While they are here, if we as a collective community can [have] a positive attitude, and certainly a more caring nature, I think that can be helpful for everyone,” Brostowicz said.
Assistant Principal Janice Chen has noticed that society is already making this shift toward emphasizing mental health. Many of the school districts she previously worked at had mental wellness centers with mental health professionals available, and MVHS also has four guidance counselors, two student advocates and two school psychologists on site. However, while Brostowicz may have students choose “Random Acts of Kindness” out of a jar to perform, a kind of break in their school day, Chen acknowledges that some students may not be as receptive toward this and would rather focus on academics at school.
“I think as a school what we have to do is remember that everyone is so different,” Chen said. “So we are going to try different modes of communication of education of these types of things [to] reach more students.”
While biology teacher Pamela Chow prefers to calm herself down by picking tasks to do that aren’t complicated or lengthy, such as washing dishes. She, like Chen, also acknowledges that one way of coping with stress might not be fit for everyone. She’s observed how her three kids all calm themselves down differently.
“Part of it is kind of finding a way to calm themselves down and know it and maybe part of it is slowly understanding what is going to calm you down and what isn’t going to calm you down,” Chow said.
Even as people may have different needs and capacities to handle their own stress, Chen emphasizes that no student’s feelings should be overlooked. If someone is feeling upset or depressed, Chen believes that no one is in the position to judge them or offer advice. Instead, they must be a good listener and show that they have an interest in assisting them.
“First [listen] to them, you know, ask what’s going on,” Chen said. “Ask ‘why are you feeling this way?’ and if something happened. Just [get] them to start talking and feeling comfortable.”
Chow agrees that immediately offering advice may be the wrong step to take. Rather, it’s a matter of students realizing there that is someone there to either listen, offer a perspective or some kind of reminder.
“I think in general, I just try to let the students know that I am there, but in a way hopefully where they don’t feel like I’m lecturing them [and telling them] what they should do,” Chow said.
This relaxed way of helping students through difficult times is also echoed by Brostowicz, who emphasizes that someone with depression can’t be “ordered [to]” to “be happy” — they must be offered the proper tools and support to find their own happiness. According to Brostowicz, teachers can pick up such tools at mental health conferences that are offered to teachers around the area. Ronnie Habib, a teacher at Palo Alto HS, introduced his “EQ Schools” (“EQ” meaning Emotional Quotient) program during an MVHS staff meeting. The program suggested ways to break up the school day with mindfulness activities and meditation.
“There were some follow up sessions that we could volunteer our prep periods to go to for some additional activities and to experience them, so we know what it would be like to do them firsthand,” Brostowicz said. “[This made] teaching them [on campus] a little bit easier.”
However, Chen acknowledges that it’s not just teachers, but students, too, who can be essential in caring for their peers’ mental health. Chen says a lot of students share with her about the way their friends helped them the most through their difficult times. Others believe that they’ve helped save their friends’ lives, which she is why she thinks that depression is certainly preventable.
“It’s just because it’s been so taboo in our culture like that we’re not talking about [trouble with mental health] explicitly,” Chen said. “But you know, now that we are equipped with tools to do so, we can we can save more lives.”
Finding the Light
Student advocate Richard Prinz sits across from a student in his office. He listens to her talk and tries to understand her story.
After she shares, Prinz contemplates the situation, thinking about the best way to move forward. He could call her parents, call the School Resource Officers (SRO) to get her immediate professional care or he could simply continue talking to her to better assess the situation. But to him, the most important thing is that the student has taken the first step to recovering: she has admitted that she has been dealing with thoughts of self-harm.
“I think the first step is wanting to work on something, whatever it is,” Prinz said. “One of our first go-to’s to cope with something is denial, [which] doesn’t promote mental health. People who say ‘I have a problem. I want to put in energy to change my mindset,’ [are on the right track]. It’s mainly just be[ing] willing to talk and finding somebody to listen.”
Program lead of Santa Clara Suicide and Crisis services Edward Subega, agrees that willingness to talk is the first, crucial step on the path to recovery. Subega says his job as a listener is to validate patients’ feelings and make them understand that their situation doesn’t make them a damaged or broken person.
“You have to acknowledge that [the student] is going through painful times,” Subega said. “Suicide is something you have to deal with for the rest of your life. You have to make them understand that it’s okay, that it’s normal. Normalizing everything is really important.”
Subega believes that normalization is essential to the recovery process as it helps his patients overcome the sense of isolation that mental health issues can often bring. He also emphasizes the difference between thoughts and action, to make his patients stop feeling responsible or terrified by every dark thought.
“[Sometime in their life], everyone has wished that they weren’t born or that they weren’t alive in that specific moment,” Subega said. “That doesn’t mean that they want to kill themselves, it just means that life is difficult for them at the moment and they wish that they had a way out. I think it’s normal to think about dying. I don’t think we have any control over what thoughts come up. It’s more about what we do about those thoughts that matters.”
Similarly, Gunn HS journalism adviser Kristy Blackburn believes that sensationalizing suicide only triggers thoughts of death by suicide or self-harm. To promote wellness on GHS’ campus and to shift the focus towards healing, she and her staff created a project called Changing the Narrative, where survivors share their authentic stories in hopes of reaching those still struggling with mental issues.
“I think that when someone is in a dark spot, they’re not seeing the world as good as they could, so there’s a lot of misperception and distortion,” Blackburn said. “When we sensationalize death by suicide, people feel, ‘If I also harm myself then I will get attention like that too.’ So, one thing I really talked about with The Oracle is the idea of not memorializing people that would create a lot of sensational information about the person.”
Prinz agrees that gory details about suicide only impede the recovery process for others — he has also noticed that the recovery process differs for all students dealing with mental issues. Some require more immediate, professional attention while others just need somebody willing to hear their feelings and provide support. One thing Prinz keeps constant in his treatment process is prioritizing the safety of the student above all else.
“First, you want to make sure they’re safe,” Prinz said. “If [the situation] requires hospitalization, then they would immediately be taken to a place where they could receive professional care in a safe environment. Every situation is different. It’s scary. You don’t know and they don’t know where they’re going, what’s going to happen next and how their parents are going to respond.”
Prinz explains that mental issues are in no way permanent. With support and professional care, Prinz believes everyone can rise past dark parts of their lives. Prinz also explains that those who have overcome suicide, depression or self-harm and are honest about their experiences can serve as a “beacon” for others that are still struggling with their feelings.
“I think people [who overcome suicide, self-harm or depression] can go on to be very helpful to others,” Prinz said. “They become somebody who has had a lot of experience. I’ve never been suicidal but I’ve had panic attacks and anxiety and I’ve been depressed, so I know a little bit of what it feels like. I can’t say I know exactly what it feels like for somebody else. But people can get through it then go on to be a resource for others.”
Similar to Prinz, Blackburn believes that survivors can go on to help others fight their own mental battles by telling their own vulnerable stories, though the Changing the Narrative project allows for only 30 percent trauma and 70 percent recovery significantly shifting the focus from suicide to the recovery process at GHS.
“[Changing the Narrative] is about acknowledging that something painful had happened on campus and in our community but also, ‘Here’s how we’re moving forward, here’s how we can help each other,’” Blackburn said. “The focus is how to get through a hard time just so people know that they can do it. It’s not always life shattering topics, but it is always about ‘Here’s how I recovered from it.’”
Prinz also explains that overcoming mental health issues allows one to connect with the ‘darker’ aspects of their own identity. He believes that all humans have a deep capacity for darkness and pain, and connecting with it makes them more human.
“You get in touch with that part of you that’s really sad or really down and you can develop compassion for others,” Prinz said. “It’s humbling, it makes you more human, more in touch with feelings, not just blocking them out.”
Subega agrees that overcoming mental health issues makes one stronger, but unlike Prinz, he doesn’t believe that a person fully recovers. However, he does believe that the battle becomes easier after they’ve triumphed once.
“When people are going through ideas of self-harm or suicide and they are able to work through it, it becomes easier the next time, but it doesn’t necessarily go away completely,” Subega said. “There’s still a next time. You may not get good at it but it does get easier every time.”
Unlike Subega, Prinz believes that completely overcoming mental health issues is possible. He explains that in the Western model of optimal mental health, mental health is only addressed when a person develops serious mental issues, such as suicidal thoughts or depression. He prefers the Eastern model, which teaches that optimal mental health is living a life without any suffering — indicating that everyone has healing to do, not just those with issues.
“[Optimal mental health is] being free and finding that unconditional love within yourself, instead of it being conditional,” Prinz said. “I think the sky is the limit to ‘optimal mental health,’ the sky meaning you can be totally free of suffering. That’s a long way off. It’s always a work in progress, for everybody.”