KIDS FIRST: How CHC is leading an emotional recovery for Silicon Valley families

by Jennifer Massoni Pardini

Students safely enjoy outdoor time together during Sand Hill School’s hybrid-model summer program last year. (Photo by MICHAEL NAVARRETE.)
Of all the travesties and tragedies our pandemic has laid bare, individual and community needs related to mental health are paramount. Not long ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey outlining the fact that one in four young adults had recently considered taking their own life, coupled with data that the number of adolescents admitted to emergency rooms for mental health–related visits rose 31 percent over the previous year. And yet, emergency rooms are often ill-equipped to handle severe anxiety and behavioral issues and, even more worrisome, self-harm and suicidal thinking.

Fortunately, the nonprofit Children’s Health Council (CHC), which serves young people up to age 25, is.

Based in Palo Alto with satellite locations in San Jose and East Palo Alto, CHC has been a hub for resources for youth mental health, learning differences, ADHD, anxiety, depression and autism. The year 2023 will mark 70 years since Peninsula-based pediatrician Dr. Esther B. Clark founded Children’s Health Council as “a place where kids come first,” with its clinical services, community clinic and the Sand Hill School and Esther B. Clark Schools. Numerous points of connection, including a podcast, blog, workshops, resource library and now, telehealth access, have expanded greatly over the last year to meet increased demand.

As the goal posts presented by the promise of 2021, vaccine rollout and public education’s ability to meaningfully reopen continue to elude many, kids and parents are still struggling among the rays of hope. After a year without recess, team sports or independent young adults off at college, the reality of the individual needs that can arise among the broader circumstances hits close to home for two CHC board members in the community, Catherine Harvey and Perri Guthrie.

Each year, typically in the spring, CHC hosts a breakfast forum with a panel of professionals who speak on a topic of interest to parents and the community. Catherine Harvey (left) and Perri Guthrie, for whom CHC is a personal passion, co-chaired the 2017 and 2018 breakfasts. (Photo – Natalie Schrik for Drew Altizer Photography)

“I grew up knowing about CHC,” says Harvey, who did not use the services when she was raising two boys in Woodside, but knows well the need. “I come from a long line of dyslexics. My father was a psychiatrist,” she shares, noting that she was aware of learning differences and mental health issues at an early age. In 2014, she asked CHC CEO Rosalie Whitlock, Ph.D. — whom she knew from Whitlock’s prior work as head of the Charles Armstrong School, which several of Harvey’s family members attended — if she could meet with her and learn more about CHC. A year later, Harvey was asked to join the board and, later, the advancement committee, of which she is now chair. Harvey and Guthrie, longtime equestrians and friends who first bonded at a Menlo Charity Horse Show, have also co-chaired the annual CHC Breakfast fundraiser at Sharon Heights Country Club.

For Harvey, Guthrie, and the local community at large, a real conversation around mental health in Silicon Valley got underway in a meaningful way in 2016, amid a surge in teen suicides in Palo Alto that made national headlines. “An acquaintance of ours lost her daughter to suicide,” Guthrie says. “Catherine made the decision she was going to save one life at a time, whatever it took,” explaining that Harvey had posted a story about depression to Facebook that ended up sparking a dialogue between Guthrie and her own daughter, who was back home in Woodside after graduating from college and struggling in ways not easily seen. “I grew up in a family, previously, that you didn’t talk about it,” Guthrie says of mental health. “It was a learning curve for me as well. But through CHC and Catherine’s support I was able to understand what it means and what to do and how to navigate with my daughter. And it actually opened up lots of conversation with my family. So I consider myself one of Catherine’s first beneficiaries of her bravery.”

“I just decided somebody had to put their name on it, somebody had to put a voice to [depression],” Harvey adds. “I started speaking out.” Her efforts led many, like Guthrie’s daughter, to wonder if Harvey was OK. While she was, Harvey never wanted another child to take their life, or for her sons to be ashamed of any learning differences, or for anyone to be ashamed of mental health issues — a driving force at the heart of CHC, which was also proactive in providing the space for families to discuss the pressures of living and learning in a competitive environment like Silicon Valley.

“We decided to pull together as many like-minded folks as we could to have a conversation about what was happening [with youth suicide],” says CHC Director of Marketing and Communications Micaelia Randolph, Ed.D. In 2016, “something like 60 people came to that first meeting,” Randolph says. “A huge agreement was, we have to start talking about this.” The agency focused on providing additional therapy, education, public awareness and collaboration. The resulting Leadership Collaborative for Teen Mental Health is a unified effort among local youth mental health agencies. Its 120 member organizations include Challenge Success, the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Stanford, SafeSpace, the Sand Hill Foundation and Sequoia Union High School District.

Teenagers were especially vocal during these earnest conversations, which led to the formation in 2017 of the Teen Wellness Committee, composed of teen mental health advocates from 17 Bay Area high schools. A year later, they published the book Just a Thought: Uncensored Narratives on Teen Mental Health, which speaks directly to teens and their friends, parents and educators. (Now housed at SafeSpace in Menlo Park, the committee remains active.)

The agency also started RISE, its comprehensive DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) intensive outpatient program for teens (a partnership with Stanford Children’s Health), which Randolph points out was one of the first of its kind on the Peninsula and continues to fill a gap for those ages 13–18 who may need more than therapy can provide, but don’t require hospitalization.

This open and prepared focus on mental health primed CHC to meet the demand presented by the stressors of the pandemic as well as an escalation in need prior to it. “We recognized immediately that this was going to have a long emotional tail on it,” Randolph says. “Not only people getting sick physically, but all of the things around the isolation: kids missing milestones, parents being at home with distance learning. We decided we were going to put ourselves in a spot to help lead the emotional recovery forward. That was the lane we were going to take.” And this is precisely what CHC has done with its effort Leading the Emotional Recovery, which has included pivoting to telehealth clinical services, setting up its schools with distance learning, communicating regularly through social media, steering community education and adding a section on COVID-19 to its robust online resource library (resources are accessible for families whether or not they use CHC’s clinical services).

“Some organizations were struggling to connect the dots and stay open,” Guthrie recalls of the early days of the pandemic. “CHC was really working on overdrive to reach more people. And how to be there for the families and individuals that were in need. There was an immediate escalation of services that way. Telehealth really broadens our reach in ways we couldn’t even imagine before.”

With such high costs of living in the Bay Area, CHC’s financial aid — doubled for therapy during COVID and increased at its schools as well — has helped compensate. “The reality is no child should have to wait six weeks or six months, even, to see a therapist,” Harvey says. “We need to get families and children seen immediately. Telehealth allows us to bring in therapists and educators from outside the area.”

To that end, CHC’s expanded capacity has been bolstered by a recent grant of nearly $2.6 million from Jack Dorsey’s Start Small Foundation. Since November, Dorsey’s foundation has dispersed approximately $358 million to organizations aiding similar recovery efforts, including Water.org, Meals on Wheels San Francisco and CARE, as well as others benefiting girls’ health and education and social justice.

Six feet apart but together during last year’s hybrid summer program at Sand Hill School, where children in grades 1–8 with learning differences receive instruction and coordinated support. (Photo by MICHAEL NAVARRETE)

Because while a high-achieving environment like Silicon Valley presents myriad pressures, it is also a place of compassion, introspection and receptiveness to change. Last October, CHC presented Voices of Compassion, an online summit of experts in education, behavioral health, mental health and family, moderated by Byron Pitts of ABC’s Nightline. As Dr. Denise Pope pointed out during the streamable event, acts of compassion to help the community through COVID can be as simple as wearing a mask, calling a grandparent or sharing food from a home garden. They can also be as vital as checking in on the young people in your life.

“I think it’s everyone’s nature to go through life and you think you’re prepared,” Guthrie reflects. “You want to be proactive, but when there is a crisis and your child is having an anxiety attack or is having suicidal ideations, you are in a reactive state. That’s where you need to be able to have a connection like CHC, where they can provide critical and accurate ways of communicating with your teen, with your young adult, with your child. It can make a huge difference in that moment, from escalating to a spiral that you can’t stop, to having a pause and getting the right help.”

For more information and resources, visit chconline.org. 24-hour crisis lines are also available: Santa Clara (855-278-4204), San Mateo (650-579-0350) and San Francisco (415-781-0500).
Teachers give high praise and cheers to their hard-working students at Sand Hill School’s spring 2020 graduation ceremony, which was a “drive-in” event. (Photo by MICHAEL NAVARRETE)
Teachers give high praise and cheers to their hard-working students at Sand Hill School’s spring 2020 graduation ceremony, which was a “drive-in” event. (Photo by MICHAEL NAVARRETE)

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