Students across California are learning about mental health thanks to the work of this teacher
By Dorsey Griffith
In just nine months in 2009 and 2010, six young people in Palo Alto died by suicide, many of them by jumping in front of a Caltrain. The tragic teen suicide cluster drew national news coverage, spawned federal research and spurred Chris Miller into action.
Then a Los Gatos Union School Board member and school youth minister at various parishes and schools in Santa Clara County, Miller immersed himself in suicide-prevention efforts and supporting families who had suffered the loss of a loved one to suicide.
But it wasn’t until a few years later, when Miller faced his own mental-health crisis, that he truly grasped how hopeless and desperate the Palo Alto teens must have felt before taking their own lives. Now a religious studies teacher at De La Salle High School in Concord, Miller, 41, often reflects on the experience that prompted his determination to meaningfully address the mental health needs of youth.
Miller had decided he needed a change, and after spending two summers doing graduate religious education work at Boston College he shifted gears. In 2013, he landed his dream job at the prestigious Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut as a teacher, campus ministry director, and soccer and rowing coach. Miller, an avid academic, also was accepted into a doctoral program at Fordham University in New York City, an easy drive from his new home in a school-provided apartment on campus.
The cross-country move felt great – at first. But within weeks he felt a deep sadness and sense of despair. He called his mother missing home and sobbing over the loss of his prior life of activism. He sought support from a psychiatrist who, fearing Miller could harm himself, had him admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut.
“Before, I could cognitively understand how someone could throw themselves in front of a train, but it wasn’t until I had my own experience did I really understand how depression can alter your mind,” he says.
Miller quit his job after just a few months and returned to California to focus on getting well through medical treatment, therapy and his deep faith. As his mental health stabilized, he dove back into his studies, and committed himself to mental-health education and advocacy.
Miller has since completed his doctorate in education at the University of San Francisco and expects to earn his third master’s degree, this one in clinical psychology, in May. He helped establish suicide-prevention policies in several Santa Clara County cities, is a member of the state Department of Education’s Student Mental Health Policy Workgroup and consulted on a pastoral letter on mental health through the California Catholic Conference. He’s also served on several national mental-health committees and met Pope Francis while attending a disabilities conference in Rome.
Today Californians can thank Miller for his tireless advocacy resulting in Senate Bill 224 that was signed into law in 2021 and took effect in January. It requires public schools that teach health education to include mental health in the curriculum for their middle and high schools.
Miller believes the time is right for educators to take on such a vital issue.
“There is a greater recognition that mental-health treatment is no different than having surgery for a torn ACL” he says. “There’s a long way to go, but a lot of progress has been made, and through classroom discussion and education and compliance with the provisions of AB 224, our hope is that our young people are better able to share with one another and adults when they or someone else is not feeling well mentally.”
Miller knows he alone can’t prevent every teen tragedy, but his relentless commitment to help others who are suffering has no doubt already had a meaningful impact on the precious lives of California’s young people.