September is Suicide Prevention Month. In my circle of work, however, every month is Suicide Prevention Month. 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. Over the past few years, suicide shaped the way I view the world: I stopped taking the people in my life for granted, I became more grateful, and—most importantly—I began to think creatively about how I could make a difference. Facing these tragedies at such a young age impacted me deeply and gave me something to pursue, and I began looking for a way to make my mark on the community. I soon discovered the power of my own voice and began working with school administrators and district personnel, allowing me to influence decisions related to mental health. Less than a month after the death of my peer, I found myself at the head of the newly-formed Student Wellness Committee at Gunn High School, completely immersed in my work in mental health.
Toward the end of my junior year, after a year and a half of my work in wellness, I began to reflect on the community’s progress. I felt that my school had made a lot of positive changes to our campus: new wellness programs, mindfulness teachings beginning in freshman year, even a new student wellness center. Across the community, more and more people were getting involved by having more 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 wellbeing of themselves and the people around them, rather than just focusing on making it through the day. To top it all off, I had begun meeting with a psychiatrist at Stanford University, Dr. Steven Adelsheim, who is developing an adolescent mental health center that is quite literally my dream come true. All in all, I felt very uplifted by the state of things, and my continued work in wellness was rewarding and fulfilling.
In late April, however, I was faced with something that impacted me on a new level and made my work all the more personal: I lost my friend Sarah to suicide. Although I had lost many of my peers and many of my friends were deeply impacted by the previous deaths, it had never hit so close to home for me before. Sarah, who was three years my senior, was an incredible young woman whom I greatly looked up to. I deeply regret not telling her how much I admired her – with a charming personality and a bright smile, she seemed to effortlessly make friends with everyone she met. The moment I met her, I immediately felt as if we had been friends for years; despite our age difference, she had a way of making me feel so loved and accepted. Her death challenged me in a way I had never experienced: we were close enough that the grief shook me to my core, yet distant enough that very few people realized the depth of my loss. For the next few months—and still today—I struggled to understand my emotions, as well as both the subtle and the not-so-subtle ways that her death impacted every area of 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.
As I continued to work on raising awareness for mental illness and suicide prevention, my work became all the more relevant and meaningful. I often look back on pieces I wrote and speeches I gave before losing Sarah, and I am struck by the tangible difference between the person I was then and the person I am now. Sarah’s life taught me an invaluable lesson about what it means to have loved and lost. I do not try to hide the impact her death has had on me: 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.” I carry Sarah’s story with me every day, as a constant reminder that some things are worth fighting for. I will never be able to bring her back or tell her how much she meant to me, so instead I channel that love into my wellness work every single day. Through this hard work, I hope to make a mark on my community and on the lives of those I hold close.
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 faced our challenge head on. Growing up in Palo Alto taught me that it is sometimes necessary to be both brave and brokenhearted. No matter how hard or hopeless things may seem, there is always another way. Reach out to those you love, and dare to be vulnerable.
Lastly, here is a quote that I recently stumbled upon that has helped me reconcile the natural tension between love and loss: “These are the memories of the people we have loved and lost. If we hold their stories deep in our hearts, you will never take them away from us.” –Kubo and the Two Strings