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Two years ago, during my sophomore year, I lost a peer to suicide. This was not the first death by suicide at my school, and it was unfortunately not the last. The losses that my friends and I have endured have forever changed the way I view the world.  

Throughout my first two years of high school, I discovered that many of my friends struggle with depression, anxiety, self-harm, or suicidality. 

According to the California Healthy Kids Survey, nearly one in four of my peers has seriously considered suicide in the past year. Nearly 10 percent of my classmates have made a suicide plan, and 5 percent have attempted to execute it. On multiple occasions, I have had to personally intervene and prevent my friends from taking their own life. 

Facing these tragedies at such a young age impacted me deeply. I began to think creatively about how I could make a difference, and I soon discovered the power of my own voice. I began working with school administrators and district personnel to influence decisions related to mental health, and halfway through my sophomore year I found myself at the head of the newly formed Student Wellness Committee at Gunn High School. 

Over the next year and a half, my school made a lot of positive changes. Across the community, more and more people were getting involved by having conversations about mental health, while mental health professionals sought to educate and inform. On campus, I noticed that my peers had begun paying more attention to the well-being of themselves and the people around them, rather than just focusing on making it through the day.

This past April, however, I was faced with something that impacted me on a new level: I lost my friend Sarah to suicide. Sarah, who was three years my senior, was an incredible young woman whom I greatly looked up to, with a charming personality and a bright smile. To this day, I struggle to understand my emotions, as well as both the subtle and the not-so-subtle ways that her death impacted my life. Sarah had been fighting a long and hard battle against depression, and despite the support of her family, friends, and doctors, her illness was indefatigable. It angered me that many people underestimated the severity of her condition—most people fail to realize that diseases of the mind can be equally as fatal as diseases of the body.

I carry Sarah’s story with me every day, as a constant reminder that some things are worth fighting for. Although we may never completely eradicate suicide, there are many people working to improve student wellness and decrease the stigma around mental health.
It takes you, me, all of us to do this. 

If you are a parent, you can make a world of difference just by listening to your child. Many of my friends who have serious mental health issues have not told their parents about their concerns because they are afraid of judgment, denial, or disappointment. But when things get really bad and I push them to talk to an adult, 99 percent of the time they come back and say, “You saved my life.” My parents have somehow managed to raise me so that I feel like I can talk to them. All I can say is this: listen more, and listen deeply.

If you find that you are struggling yourself, lead by example. Reach out to those you love, and dare to be vulnerable. Having meaningful conversations about mental health is one of the most powerful things you can do to fight stigma. I am incredibly grateful to go to a school where I know that it’s okay not to be okay—and when I need someone to talk to, there is always someone to listen.
I am not ashamed of my emotions, and I believe that having the courage to be authentic and vulnerable is the first step to fighting stigma head-on. One of my favorite quotes comes from Brené Brown, the author of Rising Strong: “When we find the courage to share our experiences and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force shame out of hiding, and end the silence.”
For the past few years I’ve been working with others from Gunn, Palo Alto Unified School District, and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, including psychiatrist Dr. Steven Adelsheim, to develop ways for kids and families to receive better care. We are working to open a stand-alone wellness center where adolescents can receive confidential mental health support. This program is quite literally my dream come true, and it’s only one piece of the puzzle. For any of these ideas to become a reality, we need your support. Without the help of people like you, students like me lack the money and influence to make lasting change.
The media often portrays my community as a cautionary tale. I, however, could not disagree more: the Palo Alto community is a shining example of Rising Strong. I am incredibly proud to be a part of this community—rather than turning our backs or sweeping these issues under the rug and allowing them to become taboo, we are facing our challenge head-on. Growing up in Palo Alto taught me that it is sometimes necessary to be both brave and brokenhearted. It taught me not to take people for granted. But most importantly, it taught me that no matter how hard or hopeless things may seem, there is always another way.
I have hope that our struggles are not in vain, and that with your help, there is a brighter tomorrow.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Lucile Packard Children's News.