Widgets Magazine

Community works to address mental health issues

Caltrain officials have joined with local organizations and support groups to address the five young deaths that plagued Palo Alto between May 2009 and January 2010.

Last Monday, the first of 250 new suicide prevention signs were put up along a 10-mile stretch of Caltrain tracks, one measure groups are taking to communicate, in the words of the signs, that “there is help.”

Adorning the new signs are those words and a hotline. The signs—a collaborative effort among Caltrain, Palo Alto-based Project Safety Net, county mental health organizations in both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and the American Association of Suicidology (AAS)—replace older ones that have been up since 2001.

Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said the old signs, which had the hotline number listed as 1-800-SUICIDE, had become less effective with the rise of smart phones, which don’t have the same letter-number correlation on their keypads.

“The telephone number was no longer effective,” she said. “And the other reason that we introduced new signs is that we have a new telephone number on there that goes to a local crisis intervention center…[which] is going to keep track of the telephone calls so we can determine whether or not the signs actually work.”

That call-tracking process is an important component of a larger ongoing study by the AAS that includes two other railroads on the east coast.

“This is just an initial study to determine if signage helps,” said Michael Garb, chief executive officer of Youth and Family Enrichment Services and a partner in the project. “Other things may be determined to be more helpful. It’s sort of a multi-phased project,” he added.

Indeed, the signs are only a small part of several endeavors within the community to address mental health issues and youth development led by Project Safety Net, a community task force involved with the implementation of the new signage.

According to Project Safety Net’s co-chair, Rob de Geus, the task force is composed of about 40 different agencies and groups, including parents, physicians, nonprofits and other youth-serving organizations.

De Geus cited 22 strategies adopted by the task force that fall under the categories of education, prevention and intervention.

“One of the priorities that we’ve come up with in terms of this year is gatekeeper training,” he said. Gatekeeper training is given to adults who work as youth advisors. It is especially targeted toward advisors who aren’t in the medical field, aren’t psychologists or aren’t knowledgeable about suicide prevention. The aim is to give these advisors the skills and resources to recognize danger signs and refer youth to the proper professional help.

Approximately 250 signs posted in several Caltrain stations provide troubled students with help. (JIN ZHU/The Stanford Daily)

This emphasis on general mental health has lead to initiatives aimed at fostering a better environment for youth development as a whole. De Geus cited 40 developmental assets developed by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute that help children and teens thrive. Those resources include support networks, positive values and social competencies.

“We’re on a campaign to talk about developmental assets with the goal of every citizen in Palo Alto becoming asset builders,” he said.

The breadth of solutions to these issues has been matched by the impressive scope of community participation, some say.

“I think it’s not one organization or agency that is able to solve the mental health problems of a community,” Garb said. “It takes the efforts of everyone in the community.”

De Geus also emphasized community dedication and expressed hope for this collaborative effort’s success. “It has been…certainly a very tragic year, but the community has really come together around this community task force to make a difference,” he said.