Three local women who have suffered the heartbreak of having children with mental illnesses, including one who lost a daughter to death by suicide, have banded together to do something locally to help everyone's children who might be in a similar situation.
By the end of next summer, if all goes according to plan, Menlo Park will have a mental health clinic just for young people.
SafeSpace is planned as a self-sustaining nonprofit modeled on the Australian clinics called "headspace."
Since starting in 2006 with 30 clinics, headspace has expanded to 100 clinics in Australia (which has about half the population of California) and the model has been adopted in Israel, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands and Canada.
The team working to open SafeSpace says the Menlo Park clinic is planned to be the first of many in the U.S.
SafeSpace will serve young people from ages 12 to 26, and involve youth in everything from designing the clinic interiors to spreading the word about it and referring friends who may need help. The clinic will have a youth advisory board, and partner with student groups at local schools. Online counseling and advice will also be available.
Stacy Drazan of Woodside, Susan Bird of Menlo Park and Liesl Moldow of Atherton are heading the effort to get SafeSpace open by the end of August 2017. They have some powerful help in the person of Chris Tanti, who has agreed to be SafeSpace's executive director. For 10 years, until his resignation in June, Mr. Tanti was the CEO of Australia's headspace.
The three women have a number of things in common beyond living on the Midpeninsula. They are mothers with business backgrounds and experience in startups, and all have parented children with mental health issues.
Mr. Tanti said the experience of the three is part of what convinced him to go beyond his initial offer to serve on SafeSpace's board and become its director. "I'm working with pretty extraordinary people," he said. "People who understand and have had experience in the mental health system."
Ms. Moldow said her now-college-age daughter's struggle with anxiety and depression since she was in second grade showed her family first-hand many of the problems with the existing mental health system. "We have nothing for our kids," she said.
SafeSpace will provide "a whole new model of mental health that's primarily focused on acceptance," she said. One idea they will emphasize, she said, is that mental health "is just as important as your physical health."
Statistics show the need for youth mental health services in San Mateo County. A survey in San Mateo County's 2014-15 Adolescent Report showed 70 percent of students in San Mateo County public schools reported being depressed, anxious or emotionally stressed in the month before the survey and that 23 percent of boys and 38 percent of girls reported suicidal thoughts.
National statistics show suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between ages 15 and 25.
In the Midpeninsula area, "young people are struggling, as they are everywhere else, and there really aren't the services for them to go to," Mr. Tanti said. Many available services aren't age-appropriate, he said.
As with the Australian headspace clinics, SafeSpace's interior will be designed by a youth advisory board with the goal of making youth feel at ease.
"This is why this organization has been so successful," Ms. Bird said, "because kids have input and they feel they're being heard."
"We're hoping to give the kids a really comfortable place to go," Ms. Drazan said. While the group is still looking for a Menlo Park location for the clinic and SafeSpace offices, they hope to be near public transportation and local schools. They are looking for 6,000 to 8,000 square feet of space that could be in two separate, but nearby, locations.
Young people will be able to get help "from someone who will listen and not judge them," Ms. Drazan said.
Ms. Moldow said SafeSpace will help "kids to understand who they are and who they're not," and allow them to be "who they are and not who we expect them to be."
Mr. Tanti said SafeSpace will not dismiss problems that might be thought of as minor by adults, such as relationship breakups or questions about sexuality. "People don't get screened out because their problems aren't complex enough," he said. "We don't turn anyone away."
Group therapy, where young people can try out their ideas on their peers, and family therapy will be offered.
"Young people know what young people need, and families know what families need," Mr. Tanti said.
Catching problems early can help keep them from getting more serious. "We try to get in at the earliest possible point," he said.
SafeSpace will work to eliminate the stigma of seeking help for mental health, and educate youth and adults on how to recognize early signs of mental health problems.
SafeSpace will focus on working with high school students at first, Ms. Drazan said, and will partner with five or six local high schools, both public and private. Veteran educator Lesley Martin, a former school principal who lives in Menlo Park, is helping make the connection with schools.
The group hopes to raise enough funds to cover three years of operation before opening the clinic. "Our goal is to create something and prove its sustainability, and then take it to other places," Ms. Drazan said.
"We do not want to be those ladies who just throw fundraisers," Ms. Moldow said. "We want to change the world."
SafeSpace.org has more information.