After five suicides, Palo Alto high school students change culture through peer support

After five classmates committed suicide last year, students at Palo Alto's Henry M. Gunn high school banded together to form a peer support group. (Photo: Christina Farr)

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When a classmate committed suicide in spring 2009, best friends Joyce Liu and Esther Han, then 17, spontaneously reached out to grieving students.

Word of the girls’ willingness to listen spread through the halls of Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Close friends and Facebook friends alike contacted the girls, just to talk.

Realizing a need for organized campus support, Liu and Han joined another friend, Yoni Alon, to form a group they called ROCK. “Rocks are there when you need them and they never change,” the group’s blog explains.

When the school was shaken by four more suicides in the next six months, ROCK’s leaders stepped up their efforts. They contacted one of the country’s best-known adolescent psychologists, the co-founder of the National Peer Helpers Association. “When you’re dealing with depression and suicide, there’s only so much you can do as a friend,” Liu said.

ROCK committed to 15 sessions with Dr. Barbara Varenhorst to become peer counselors. The students discussed how to help others cope with academic responsibilities, personal relationships and parental problems.

The group has since expanded to 10 to 15 regulars, with countless success stories. “These kids are ambitious enough to change the culture of high school,” said Paul Dunlap, an English teacher at Gunn High School.

ROCK’s message has spread far beyond the school gates. It has taken root in the South Bay, inspiring students at other high schools to set up similar support groups. As a result, Project Cornerstone, a Silicon Valley nonprofit specializing in teen emotional health, has had more requests for assistance in setting up peer helper programs, said Linda Silvius, the school partnership director.

“Students at ‘Paly’ (Palo Alto High School) have also had a conversation with Dr. Varenhorst about starting a program at their site,” Silvius said. About 20 students at Prospect High in Saratoga and Leigh High in San Jose received the peer helper training this year.

“God, what can we do?”

Dunlap’s eyes glistened as he remembered how ROCK’s founders took the initiative to become educated and effective helpers. “They asked us, ‘God, what can we do?’” the English teacher said. “It made me so proud of our students.”

A supporter of Dr. Varenhorst’s methods, Dunlap recognizes that his students are often wary about confiding in teachers and guidance counselors. It’s simple, he said: “Students will talk to other students.”

Enter Dr. Varenhorst. An octogenarian from Portola Valley with 30 years of experience in her field, she was an early believer that teens could help other teens.

While a head counselor at Palo Alto’s Wilbur Junior High School, Dr. Varenhorst piloted the first peer-helper training program in 1970. Buoyed by a long line of volunteers, she formed the National Peer Helper Association to promote similar programs across the country.

She remembers being called into Gunn High School to meet with the students from ROCK.  “They wanted to improve skills of how to reach out to kids who are lonely and left out,” she said. “Many people think (that) is the reason why kids commit suicide.”

The Next Generation

These days, ROCK is stronger than ever. A trio of female leaders recently vowed to continue Liu and Han’s legacy at Gunn.

Current leader Sophia Jiang, 17, was an early ROCK volunteer. It was Jiang’s idea to cover the campus buildings with multicolored Post-it notes for a few weeks last school year, reminding students that they were not alone. She called it “Operation Beautiful.”

Jiang also set up a Facebook group urging students to write Post-its that quickly amassed 200 members.

Liu, now a freshman at UC Berkeley, said she was proud to pass on the torch to Jiang, Mia Howard and Paula Jung. The ultimate goal for this year’s ROCK is to build inclusiveness and break down cliques. In November, the group welcomed new students by mobilizing seniors to greet freshman who were clustered anxiously in the quad.

“We’d go to where the new freshmen eat lunch and strike up a discussion with them,” Howard said. “Let them know that seniors aren’t scary people,” she giggled.

Jiang helped organize this year’s “freshman quad invasion” to expose new students to the school’s supportive ethos. “If they need anything, they know they can turn to us,” she said.

Each morning, ROCK makes an announcement offering support to the school community. The group blog is filled with anonymous comments testifying to its success. In classrooms, signs are posted on the walls with words like “loyalty” and there is a counseling service at the school library staffed by ROCK volunteers.

Nitsan Shah, a junior at Gunn, said that school life has continued to improve. “There are definitely teachers and students making the community an intimate place, where students can reach out and not feel ashamed about it,” he said.

“It’s satisfying to know that you’ve helped them, even if it’s a tiny step,” said Mia Howard. “It makes me feel that we are doing something worthwhile.”

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