An open letter to students on mental health

Dave Cortright
4 min readMay 21, 2023

This was originally published in the Palo Alto Weekly on May 20, 2023.

My whole life I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and — at my lowest — suicidal ideation. When I was a kid, some mornings I’d need to lie down on the couch before I could muster up the energy to walk the remaining 15 feet to the kitchen. In high school, I diagnosed myself with mononucleosis because I was so chronically fatigued and desperately wanted a reason why. In retrospect, both were depression symptoms.

Exacerbating this has been the outward appearance that I had everything necessary for a happy life: smart, tall, handsome, academic success, an athlete, a musician… As comedian Gary Gulman observed, “What have you got to be depressed about?!

It was bad enough to be suffering, but even worse to feel isolated because I didn’t feel safe sharing; I was sure no one would understand and I thought I’d be judged harshly. For me it wasn’t worth the risk. A tenuous connection was better than the possibility of ostracism.

When I was a high school sophomore, my brother was a senior. Our whole family attended the annual year-end awards ceremony, in which he completely dominated: student-athlete of the year, math student of the year, science student of the year, overall student of the year… I can’t even remember them all. If they had one, he’d’ve also walked away with the “most awards” award.

I wanted to be happy for him. And on one level, I was. But on a deeper level, I was terrified. I saw where the bar had been set and feared what would happen if I didn’t do the same. I believed I needed to be the best to be worthy of love and belonging. (Two years later I also won Student of the Year. But Jim Carrey was right: That wasn’t the answer.)

To be clear, my family loved me. It wasn’t explicitly abusive, but there was emotional dysfunction and neglect. Within our extended family, I felt the displays of affection were perfunctory and performative. I know now that my mom grew up in an alcoholic household; they all did their best at the time with the capacity they had. But when I was a kid, this was all I’d known. Without much life experience or perspective, it was natural to believe I was the broken one.

Our system of achievement and performance ranking can impinge on the self-esteem of any student, even high-achievers like myself. If you believe your place on the planet is contingent upon delivering results, there is pervasive low-level anxiety. You’re always one slip from the humiliation of mediocrity.

Here’s what I wished I had known when I was a student. Just because you don’t feel secure expressing your true feelings with family or friends doesn’t mean the whole world is that way. There are people who will understand, listen and won’t judge or shame. Someone who can be what Peter Levine calls “an empathetic witness.”

They might not know you well, but that doesn’t mean they are uncaring or indifferent. Some of us have been there in the depths of despair and ultimately found someone who helped us through it. Now we are doing our best to pay it forward — to “be the person we needed when we were younger.” The things you hide inside due to embarrassment, fear or shame do not make you bad or broken. Rather, they make you human. I wish I could tell my teenage self that you don’t need to suffer in silence; you never need to go through this alone.

Kids living in poverty have more mental health issues than the middle class. But it can be even worse for kids in high socioeconomic communities like Palo Alto. The data forms a U-shaped curve. When your parents and seemingly everyone around you are high-achieving, it can feel like a nonnegotiable requirement to fit in.

This is plainly and painfully obvious in the Palo Alto schools’ California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS). One-third report no caring adult relationships at school. One in five feel school is not safe — you’ve been harassed or bullied. One-quarter experience social-emotional distress or chronic sadness/hopelessness. One in six have contemplated suicide. These are not isolated results: previous reports are in the same range, even pre-COVID. This is an ongoing travesty — a community crisis. If we don’t take action, it will become our new baseline.

I see abundant resources being thrown at this problem, yet students are still struggling. What we’re doing is clearly not working. In product development, we’re taught: “Know your customer.” It strikes me that we really don’t know our customers when it comes to student mental health.

So please, tell us. Tell us your struggles. Tell us what prevents you from getting support. We want to help, so tell us what truly would help. And equally, tell us what isn’t helpful.

I have some ideas we could use to seed the discussion (offer all classes pass/fail, peer support groups, ACEs screening, mentors, coaches …), but I don’t have the answers — the collective “you” does.

My hope in writing this is to inspire and empower you. I invite you to step up, unify your voices and tell us what you need. You need to speak up, and you need to keep speaking up. Because if you’re not, it’s all too easy for the adults to rationalize that everything is OK; that we’re doing the best we can. As the CHKS data proves, everything is not OK. We can — and must — do better.

Dave Cortright is a member of Santa Clara County’s Behavioral Health Board, a NAMI peer mentor, and welcomes your mental health story or feedback: https://bit.ly/PASMH

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Dave Cortright

Professional coach, effective altruist and audaciously optimistic about helping to fix the global mental health crisis. https://designingthis.life