Eight days before Chloe Sorensen won a Young Leader award from Young Minds Advocacy for her work as a suicide prevention advocate, she lost another friend to suicide. For Sorensen, this wasn’t anything new. Sorensen is a recent graduate of Palo Alto’s Henry M. Gunn High School, the Silicon Valley school that made headlines for a spate of suicides in 2009. During Sorensen’s sophomore year alone, four teenagers committed suicide in her school district: one Gunn alum, two current students, and one student who attended crosstown rival Palo Alto High School.
Like others in the community, Sorensen felt waves of shock after each suicide cluster. On-campus grief support helped her to process her emotions. Unfortunately, suicide clusters — defined as three or more suicides in close proximity to each other — have occurred with increasing frequency in Palo Alto, where the rate is four times the national average. But before they began happening at her school, suicide was more or less an abstract concept. “I had a few friends who dealt with mental health conditions, but never dealt with suicide,” Sorensen said. “As a 15 year old, that was a really difficult thing to process because I didn’t understand what was happening. But the way I dealt with that grief, shock and initial pain was by channeling it into something more positive.”
Initially, that meant leaning on existing relationships with family and friends to grieve, and coming up with ways to advocate for mental health at Gunn. Sorensen started the Student Wellness Committee to encourage students to be more aware of their mental health, including a referral system where her peers could refer friends anonymously for in-school counseling. Another successful initiative: Youth Empowerment Seminars, where students learn stress-relief techniques such as mindfulness and breathing exercises.
Soon enough, Sorensen found herself immersed in the mental health advocacy space at the district level, a role that she’s quick to admit “snowballed” over time. After addressing the school board about pressures outside of school that often affect a student’s mental health — and being quoted in local papers as a student advocate and leader in the community — she was approached by national media outlets like NPR and The New York Times. “It was startling, but it was also hard to sit still with the feelings,” said Sorensen. “I’d much rather go out there, do something, and try to make a difference.”
Thanks to people like Sorensen, the past few years have seen progress regarding mental health awareness. In July, Oregon became one of the first states to allow students to be absent from school for a physical or mental illness, joining Utah and Minnesota in a growing movement that tells students it’s okay to admit when they’re struggling. “It’s important for schools to acknowledge that mental health is a critical component of student well-being, [but] it also plays an enormous role in success at school,” said Patrick Gardner, president and founder of Young Minds Advocacy. “It’s a positive step to empower students to act in their own best interest, and not feel they would be penalized for staying home if they believe that’s best for them.”
Not that today’s teens have any shortage of reasons for self-care: In addition to trauma triggered by mass shootings, the current political climate and the omni-present reality of climate change, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34. In Oregon, it is the state’s second leading cause of death in the same age group. Says Gardner: “Colleges historically haven’t been very good at addressing the mental health needs of their students, and universities typically haven’t been forthcoming in trying to sort that out.”
Gardner founded Young Minds Advocacy in 2012 while working at the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to helping low-income children achieve their potential. Today, Young Minds works to motivate local communities to address the number one issue facing young people and their families: unmet mental health needs.
While the group’s approach involves a blend of policy research, advocacy, impact litigation and strategic communications, one of its most important functions is providing a platform for teens to have a voice in advocating for mental health. “[Treating illness] as something only a doctor can give you a prescription for is the medical model of dealing with mental health, which has been so problematic in the United States,” Gardner said. “In Oregon, they talk about mental and behavioral health, which is a much broader concept and much more useful and actionable to children and families.”
In many states, students must be 18 to receive treatment without parental consent, which is one reason students are mobilizing to take mental health into their own hands. Though Sorensen wasn’t familiar with Young Minds Advocacy at the time, Gardner’s daughter Annabelle, communications director at Young Minds, contacted her in 2016 about receiving an award for community advocacy after learning about Sorensen’s work in the Palo Alto community.
Now a student at Stanford, Sorensen spends much of her time working with the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing on the launch of Allcove, a network of youth mental health centers in Santa Clara County geared toward youth 12 to 25 years of age. In addition to onsite mental health services, basic primary care, wellness services and the educational/career support offered at each center, young people can access a variety of support services without parental consent, including treatment for early psychosis and substance abuse counseling. Sorensen also founded Youth United for Responsible Media Representation, a group of students working to reduce suicide contagion by training the media not to sensationalize coverage in the aftermath of tragedy.
Despite all the work she’s done to raise youth awareness around mental health, Sorensen recognizes how fortunate she is to live in a community where mental health isn’t swept under the rug. She also remains humble about the awards she’s received for her work. “I almost didn’t want to go to that [Young Minds Advocacy] awards ceremony: I didn’t know anyone, and it kind of felt shitty to get an award for suicide prevention when my friend just died,” Sorensen said. “But it reaffirmed that this work is important. The role that Young Minds played in my life was to help me find my voice. They really stood behind me and elevated me at a time I needed that support.”