This story is a companion piece to this week's cover story: Youth mental health clinic now open in Menlo Park.
While SafeSpace was started by three mothers whose families have suffered sometimes heartbreaking mental health issues, the nonprofit's founders say it will take much of its direction from its Youth Advisory Board of local high school and college students.
Some of those advisory board members say they joined because they want to share their personal mental health experiences. Two of them told their stories to the Almanac.
"The best education you can get is from someone who's been there," said Liesl Moldow, SafeSpace's director of development and a board member.
In a dark place
Ryan, a high school freshman whom the Almanac has chosen to identify by a pseudonym because of her age, says she had always been a high achiever, in school, and in life.
"I had never considered myself as one of the people who would ever need" mental health assistance, she said. "I really like learning, and doing well, and being involved."
But then, in two consecutive weeks, she sustained concussions while playing water polo.
The brain trauma affected her short-term memory and she missed about two months of school, leaving her behind in her classes.
"It was really difficult for me to adjust to needing help," Ryan said. Tensions at home made things worse, she said, and "I ended up getting to a dark place." She withdrew from her family and friends and had no energy.
"I didn't actually hurt myself," she said, "but I was really close. It could have ended up really, really bad."
A blowout argument led her and her mother to realize that Ryan couldn't "continue to live in this way," she said. "I was not myself; this was not the kid I had been."
Ryan said her mother found her help through a list of therapists provided by her school. A therapist referred her to a psychiatrist, who prescribed an anti-depressant.
"There are a lot of resources, but at the same time it's hard to find them," Ryan said. Also, treatment can be expensive. "A lot of therapists don't take or aren't covered by insurance."
While some of Ryan's problems are unique, much of her situation is almost universal to Silicon Valley, she said.
"In our house, there's a lot of pressure to succeed," she said. She and her two siblings had tutoring from a young age "so we learned a lot outside of school."
"Everyone's parents are trying to have them do 20 extracurricular" activities in addition to academics, she said. "The whole goal is for (the students) to be really successful in life," as successful as their parents.
Some of the pressure is self-inflicted, she said. "I've always pushed myself. My goal is to get into, wherever it may be, Duke, Harvard, Yale, Princeton."
However, she said, she now realizes, "there's no point to pushing yourself to a point where you're really unhappy."
"I can't breathe"
Jessica Carlson, a 20-year-old who represents Menlo College on the SafeSpace advisory board, said she joined the board partially because she "knew Shelby Drazan as a friend and a classmate."
She also joined so she could tell others about how she has moved past her own anxiety.
"It just takes the one person to help you, to be there for you when you're in need," she said. "I'm really excited about the opportunity to give those resources to the youth in the community that weren't there when I was in high school."
Her anxiety, she said, started in fourth grade, although it wasn't diagnosed until she was a junior in high school.
The anxiety was not always tied to a recognizable event, she said, and went as far as panic attacks. A panic attack, she said, is "an almost indescribable feeling."
"My heart starts racing. I feel like I can't breathe. My breathing gets really shallow, it's hard for me to catch my breath. I get sweaty sometimes. I get very shaky, too."
But after seeing four therapists, and trying everything from medication to mindfulness, breathing techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy, Ms. Carlson said she has found what works for her and now accepts her anxiety as part of who she is.
"There's nothing wrong with (me)," she said of the anxiety. "It's part of life. It's something that's shaped who I am. I wouldn't be where I am and who I am without that."
The advice she would give someone who thinks they may be starting to experience something similar? "It doesn't hurt to go to someone you trust and open up about what you're feeling," she said. "Embrace it, instead of keeping it tucked down deep inside."
"I just wish people weren't afraid of talking about" mental health issues, she said. "It's not something you should be ashamed of."
SafeSpace, she said, is meant to help young people avoid "crisis mode."
"Nobody wants that," she said.