Teen forum sparks mental health discussion in community

    A growing need for emotional well-being within Palo Alto has sparked the creation of a variety of forums and conferences that aim to discuss and seek to improve issues within our community. On Friday at the Mitchell Park Community Center, Palo Alto teens and adults came together for a youth forum to encourage teenagers to have open discussion in a safe environment.

    Teen-selected adult facilitators and students from the Teen Advisory Board and Palo Alto Youth Council led the event, officially titled “In This Together: A Place to Share, A Place to Support, A Place to Heal.” The two teen groups seek to improve the community by linking teens with the general public through the implementation of programs that encourage student involvement.

    “[The] teen voice is really important,” TAB and PAYC member Elinor Aspegren said. “Teens are often told that their opinions don’t matter or that they’re too young to know what they’re talking about. … And right now, we’ve given them a space to talk about what they’re feeling.”

    The event kicked off with a few introductory remarks from Aspegren, Gunn High School junior and master of ceremonies; Rob de Geus, Palo Alto director of community services; and Amal Aziz, youth and teen services director of The City of Palo Alto.

    “We must be intentional [and] authentic and show resolve in our discussion with teens as we go forward,” de Geus said.

    Afterwards, students and adults split into their respective sessions: teen discussion circles and an adult support workshop. Students engaged in three rounds of 25-minute dialogue circles, which covered the topics of “Social Academic Pressure,” “Grieving, Coping and Dealing with Loss,” “Dealing with Stress,” “Defeating Stigma,” “Dealing with Depression” and “Inclusion, Acceptance and Friendship.” The dialogue circles prompted students to reflect on their own lives in order to offer suggestions for how to improve the community in the future.

    “It [the forum] gets the conversation going, and that doesn’t happen very much in other circumstances,” Gunn junior Rachel Gates said.

    Student facilitator and Palo Alto High School senior Emma Chiu and adult facilitator and Gunn Oracle adviser Kristy Blackburn led the “Social Academic Pressure” dialogue circle. Students discussed where academic pressure stems from and how students and adults can change the definition of social academic pressure within Palo Alto. Ideas ranged from not limiting the number of Advanced Placement classes a student can take to counting a smaller achievement, such as winning a video game, as a success.

    The “Dealing with Stress” group led by adult facilitator Eric Bloom, Paly Social Studies and school climate teacher, discussed the causes of stress, how it feels and ways to alleviate it. Some members of the group reported that tests, relationships and the future often make them feel hot, tense and filled with nervous energy.

    The dialogue circles gave students chances to be heard and to hear others, according to de Geus.

    “To listen and to understand can be a very powerful thing,” de Geus said.

    After each dialogue session was complete, students and adults met during “Empathy Hour” to allow facilitators to summarize their discussions with the rest of the forum attendees.

    “I’m hoping that when we come back and talk about all the things said in the circles, parents and administrators will … start to realize what teens and adults want,” Aspegren said.

    Gates enjoyed the experience to both share and listen to the teen attendee’s ideas.

    “It was a nice to see a lot of different people engaging with each other and hearing different perspectives from people of different parts of the community,” Gates said.

    According to Aspegren, the “In This Together” forum is just one of many discussions that will begin to make a strong connection between adults and teens in the community.

    “Some say teenagers are too young … to make decisions, but I think teenagers have the power to change the world,” Gunn sophomore and TAB member Shannon Yang said.

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