SAN JOSE — Squeals of delight, screams of excitement and peals of laughter erupted in Leland High School’s quad this week as nearly two dozen dogs and their handlers visited the school over lunchtime. With the pets’ visit, the Almaden Valley campus collectively took a break and exhaled, just before launching into fall semester finals.
“Taking a break with dogs reminds you that school, even though it’s important, isn’t everything,” said Natalie O’Rourke, 14, a freshman who was getting a loving licking from bulldog Oliver, one of 16 pets from Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services. The dog is like “one giant stress ball,” Natalie said.“They love you, and it’s great.”Pet therapy is one of dozens of ideas hatched by Leland’s thriving Let’s Erase The Stigma — Bring Change 2 Mind Club, which seeks to ratchet down Leland’s competitive culture, bring discussion of mental health into the open and destigmatize mental illness.
The club is fueled by a growing stress and mental-health crisis among students. Leland has not been immune to the suicide plague that has afflicted Bay Area high schools. Students remember a classmate and a school graduate who took their lives about three years ago.
Statewide, 1 in 3 ninth- and 11th-graders — and 1 in 4 seventh-graders — suffered from chronic sadness within the past year, according to a California Healthy Kids Survey covering 2013-’15.
The survey also noted that 2 to 3 percent of teens attempted suicide in the past year, which translates to 40 to 60 students in an average high school of 2,000 students. While Palo Alto has gained attention for its teen deaths, California has seen 15 teen suicide clusters — successive incidents of youth taking their own lives in certain communities — over a dozen years, according to the California Department of Education.
Those worrisome statistics and evidence of teen stress led teacher Gabriel Welcher to found the LETS club, as it’s known for short, last fall during his inaugural year at Leland.
With more than 100 members, the club moved to a space larger that what Welcher’s special-education classroom provided. The club has brought in mental health experts, staged rallies, attended a Bay Area-wide conference, and equipped every classroom with tear-off notes aimed at suicide prevention. LETS also has enabled students to talk openly about mental-health issues affecting their lives.
“This isn’t like a therapy club, it’s an educational club,” senior Simar Dhaliwal said. But the club did create a safe space to talk about families’ mental health issues. “I felt like I was able to use my family’s story and help others reassure others,” said Annie Hancock, now a freshman at Brigham Young University, who helped start the Leland club.
Club President Lucy Rios said LETS has made all the difference in her life, bringing hope, confidence and new friends.
“I used to be gloomy and not really talk to people,” she said. She navigated a rocky road in her first years at Leland — a serious sinus infection that knocked her out of school for weeks, as well as mental and physical conditions like depression and diabetes. All that came on top of the culture and educational shock of coming from a less rigorous downtown school that didn’t prepare her for Leland’s competitive culture.
“I was like, OK, this is overwhelming, what am I going to do?” she said, recalling her freshman year.
Now a senior, she brings a needed perspective. For many at Leland, “all they think about is grades, grades grades,” she said. “But everyone has a different talent, everyone has their own special gift. If you look back 10 years from now, you’ll think, ‘Why did I stress over a simple test?’”
For various reasons, stress is widespread at Leland. Anonymous surveys last school year conducted by the LETS Club point to undercurrents of crises. Many students mentioned coping with mental illness in their families, being ridiculed for attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia or other learning disabilities, and suffering silently with depression or anxiety. And, students wrote, they felt desperate, alone and with no place to turn until the club began its twice-monthly meetings.
“This is the best thing I have ever been given: to see my best friend smile and feel like everything is going to be OK again,” wrote an anonymous senior last spring. “If it wasn’t for the LETS Club and my friends right now, I would not be living. I would probably have ended my life.”
Sobering comments like those propel the energetic Welcher, who has social work credentials, to devote hours of personal time to the club.
Leland’s club is a chapter of the national organization founded by actress Glenn Close, whose sister and nephew suffer from mental illnesses. There are chapters at 51 schools in the greater Bay Area, including in Los Altos, Antioch, Pittsburg, Fremont, Cupertino and San Ramon.
The club has brought self-realization and reflection, sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, to students, and changed campus conversations.
“In high school we made a lot of jokes that offended a lot of people,” said Gabriel Quach, now a freshman at UC Irvine and one of Leland’s LETS Club founders. It occurred to him, he said, that “some of things you say, you shouldn’t have said.”
Leland’s “Stress Less” week also featured 75 posters of coping strategies, and giant pads with markers for kids to answer the question, “What makes you happy.” As students raced to the quad Monday, clearly dogs were the answer for many.
Welcher was excited to see his idea, funded by a parent donor, work magic. “Our main goal is create positive learning environment,” he said. “If I can bring joy to students — and keep some from taking their lives — I’m doing my job.” To read more about Bring Change To Mind, go to http://bringchange2mind.org/.