Making Teen Mental Health Everyone's Responsibility

As I drove through Palo Alto recently, I saw the sobering reminders of the toll that depression can take on young people. Police officers sat guard at three spots where the local commuter trains pass over open road. During the last month, two teenagers from a local high school have ended their lives on those tracks, stepping in front of a speeding engine. A third tried to do the same, but was pulled back by his mother, police, and a passing motorist.

It has left a community shaken and on the local newspapers website, there are the inevitable murmurings about blame: the schools ask too much of kids. The trains should be put underground. Teenagers need to get more sleep. The local counseling service is failing. The high school is too large.

The pressure on these teenagers is intense to be sure. But surely preventing suicide isn't as simple as changing the configuration of the train tracks or making finals optional.

Cornell University - a place with an old reputation as a pressure cooker - has tried a unique approach.: make watching out for signs of depression everyone's job. The janitors - who see when someone is vomiting repeatedly - know that is a red flag. The doctors at student health screen for depression, even when the visit is for something else. Teams of staff from different areas of the university meet regularly to share impressions, allowing them to piece together the complex picture of how an at-risk student is doing.

It's a radical idea: maybe the solution isn't in the hands of the parents or teachers or administrators or counselors alone. Maybe it is our job - all of us who work with and live with children and teenagers - to know what depression looks like, to name it, and to talk about how to treat it.

Signs of depression in teenagers (Source: Suicide Prevention Resource Center): 

  • A sudden worsening in school performance
  • Withdrawal from friends and extracurricular activities
  • Expressions of sadness and hopelessness, or anger and rage
  • A sudden, unexplained decline in enthusiasm and energy
  • Overreaction to criticism
  • Lowered self-esteem, or feelings of guilt
  • Indecision, lack of concentration, and forgetfulness
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Unprovoked episodes of crying
  • Sudden neglect of appearance and hygiene
  • Seeming to feel tired all the time, for no apparent reason
  • Use of alcohol or other drugs

Once we have recognized the challenges students face, the next step is to not hesitate to bring in a professional to help. A psychologist can identify and treat true depression. A trusted teacher will be a touchstone for students during the school day. And a college admissions counselor might provide unbiased advice during the stressful application process. We collectively need to make sure students are served well in every way.


Christine Foster graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree in American History before embarking on a career as a journalist. As a former reporter for Forbes magazine in New York and Silicon Valley, Christine wrote articles on business and education-related issues, including privatization of school lunch programs and a cover story on school vouchers. One of her feature stories for Stanford's alumni magazine, on homeschoolers admitted to Stanford, continues to make the rounds on the internet many years after publication. Christine is based out of Silicon Valley and works with college applicants as part of the Anna Ivey team.