TPHS holds Yellow Ribbon Week to erase stigma of mental illness, prevent suicide


As part of an art installation on the Torrey Pines High School campus last week, there were 263 music notes crowding the window of the media center. The notes were meant to represent the fact that one in 10 high school students suffer with mental health challenges — there are 2,633 students at Torrey Pines, which means more than 263 students may be experiencing a personal struggle.

“Each music note here represents one of us with a troubled mind right now,” read the inscription on the window. “Be kind to one another and let’s make beautiful music together.”

The installation was part of Torrey Pines’ annual Yellow Ribbon Week, led by teacher Don Collins and the school’s Peer Assistant Listeners (PALS).

“The purpose of this week is to eliminate the stigma of mental illness and being depressed. The fact is one out of 10 kids is suffering right now in high school, we know one out of four adults is diagnosed with some kind of mental issue or dynamic and we also know there are a million people who are overcoming and achieving in the presence of these situations,” Collins said. “Mental illness doesn’t define somebody.”

The PALS decorated the campus with yellow ribbons and more than 600 informational and positive quote posters around campus. Posters included the five signs that suggest a shift in someone’s mental health (personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self care, and hopelessness) demonstrated by emojis as well as text, web and phone resources for support if a student doesn’t feel comfortable talking face to face with someone.

The PALS also held a week-long performance art called Teen Trouble Balloons where PALS generated a list of common teenage stresses and struggles (body image, AP tests, divorce, loss in the family, depression, betrayed by a friend, peer pressure, parental expectations) and wrote them on one side of the yellow balloon and wrote “I asked for help” on the other. They tied their balloon to their back packs and carried them around for the day.

“It became so popular we had a balloon station at lunch for kids to take one or create their own,” Collins said. “The unspoken value of this activity is that students get to see that they are not alone in the struggles they may be experiencing.”

The PALS class also created videos that were entered into the statewide Directing Change competition. Directing Change is part of “Every Mind Matters,” California’s Mental Health Movement and statewide efforts to promote the mental health and wellness of students.

Two assemblies with guest speakers were another way for students to hear how they could survive and thrive through even the most difficult experiences. Speakers talked about suicide prevention, their own struggles with depression and mental illness, and how to bounce back and how to find resilience.

On March 23, the students heard from Phaidra Knight, USA Rugby’s Player of the Decade in 2010 who is trying out for the Olympic Rugby team at the age of 41, and Commander Jeff Millegan, MD, the creator and director of the Mind Body Medicine Program at Naval Medical Center Balboa Hospital.

Knight spoke about overcoming growing up in a home with abuse through a love of academics and athletics. She poured herself into being a student athlete and earned a full scholarship to Alabama State University and went on to the University of Wisconsin for law school, where she discovered rugby.

“Through rugby is where I began to open up and talk about the abuse, express my anger, disappointment and joy,” Knight said. “That was my voice.”

She made the U.S. National Team and found confidence, going to three World Cups representing the country as one of the top players in the game. She never dreamed it would come through rugby and so late in her athletic career, but she found her “authentic” self.

“The impact you can make on the world around you is tremendous but it starts with the impact you can make on yourself,” Knight said, encouraging students going through a tough time to keep hope and positive thoughts.

“It’s raining now but it’s not going to be raining forever,” echoed Collins.

Millegan spoke about his work with the Mind Body Medicine Program, and how he helps members of the military and patients build resilience with self-care and meditation.

His job has involved going out to a destroyer in Singapore where there had been four suicides over a 14-month period and where 14 percent of the crew was suicidal. The ship was a microcosm of everyday life — stress ran high, there was a lot of pressure to perform for self promotion, family and pride, and people felt a struggle to cope yet were scared to death to tell others about their problems. To be able to ask for help is a big step and Millegan uses meditation to help patients, serving as a “workout for the mind” building endurance and mental fitness.

“(Meditation) is building the ability to focus and see the world as it is. It’s incredible how much you can lose that sight, what you see is not always true,” Millegan said. “Probably what leads to suicide the most is people in the moment seeing a situation as completely unwinnable and hopeless. Regular meditation allows you to continue to see all of your options, all the realities of a situation.”

He said the brilliance of meditation is focusing on something else, giving the mind something to think about — he led a gym full of high schoolers on a five-minute meditation practice.

On March 24, students heard from Nuno Costa and Jake Heilbrunn. Heilbrunn, a Torrey Pines graduate, spoke about his struggles with anxiety and depression when he graduated high school and started college. He sought help and now writes a blog about his travel experiences.

Costa grew up with a mother who was schizophrenic and an alcoholic father.

“He spent more than a year in an orphanage at 12, and came to America at 14 knowing no English, yet his determination to be independent and happy enabled him to not only complete a degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in international relations, but also become a CrossFit phenomenon,” Collins said.

He is currently ranked 66th out of more than 100,000 competitors worldwide and will be one of only two CrossFit athletes to qualify and compete in all eight CrossFit Games.

“There’s a mistaken belief that talking about suicide causes more suicide. The opposite is true. Not talking about suicide creates shame and a stigma,” Collins said. “The purpose of this week is to eliminate the stigma of mental illness and promote suicide prevention by providing support and examples of people who have overcome difficulties and come out stronger on the other side. We all have to learn it’s OK to ask for help.”

To view the PALS Directing Change video, visit