The cover article on the spate of teen suicides in Palo Alto provides an up-front discussion of the issue and helps address the harmful stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. Suicide has important biological underpinnings and is amenable to interventions. Effective treatment for depression can work wonders too. Our communities and families need to talk about mental illness and suicidal thoughts openly and matter-of-factly, just like we would about any other medical condition. We need to encourage those who are suffering and their families to seek treatment, and emphasize that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Only in this way will we stem the tide.
Maria A. Oquendo, M.D.
PRESIDENT-ELECT, AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASSOCIATION
The Silicon Valley suicides are a cause for mourning, and we should make every effort to understand what is happening and why. Hanna Rosin touches on the possible influences of race, poverty, parenting, and school expectations in seeking explanations for the problem. But West Coast secular thinking has now so infected sociological study that it does not seem relevant to Rosin to seek any correlation between spiritual values and practices and the presence or absence of suicide trends. This is like studying disease data without factoring in germ theory.
As student journalists, we are mindful of the national guidelines on suicide reporting outlined by the National Institute of Mental Health. These recommendations ... are imperative in reducing the media coverage's effect on increasing copycat suicides. Rosin clearly violates these guidelines, which caution against descriptive accounts of the act of suicide itself and the publication of the contents of a suicide note. She vividly depicts a rushing train, which is especially triggering, as well as Cameron Lee's parents reading his suicide note ...
Furthermore, Rosin neglects to mention in detail the efforts that our community has made. Though she briefly mentions the recent Unmasked documentary and Gunn [High School]'s "A Titan Is ..." project, there are many other initiatives working to improve school climate and address the stigma surrounding mental health. These efforts include the Sources of Strength peer-mentoring program at [Palo Alto High] and Gunn, the "Changing the Narrative" series in Gunn's Oracle, and the Save the 2008 campaign.
EXCERPT FROM AN EDITORIAL IN PALO ALTO HIGH SCHOOL'S VERDE MAGAZINE
I was the vice president of ROCK (Reach Out, Care, Know), a suicide-prevention club. I helped my friends who were struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. In eighth grade, one of my best friends attempted suicide. She had, and still has, bipolar disorder and depression.
The main "why" of suicide is mental illness. Stress can heighten mental illness and cause depression, but there is no evidence showing that stress is what led to any of these suicides.
I agree that we have a stress problem at Gunn. We should address mindfulness on campus. We should address the stigmatization of mental illness. We should be offered multiple paths to success from the very beginning of elementary school, as well as different views on what success is. Rosin interviewed me for this article, and she completely disregarded everything I had to say that wasn't "Gunn is known as the suicide school in the middle-school communities."
There are kids who are pushed along by their parents and have their whole lives planned out for them. This happens everywhere across the country. But publicizing this issue using the suicides in my hometown, where there is no connection between this and the kids who committed suicide, is just painful and harmful to a group of people trying to heal.
I do not have "Stockholm syndrome" from this. It is not embarrassing that we have had so many suicides here. We are sensitive about being interviewed, because our voices have not been heard and apparently continue to not be heard.
I didn't love high school. I am so glad to be out of Palo Alto and with people who are passionate about what I'm passionate about. But when Rosin characterizes the people I spent four years with, crying on the quad with, as soulless zombies, I take issue with that.
Allyna Mota Melville
GUNN CLASS OF 2015
PALO ALTO, CALIF.
Hanna Rosin's article posed this question: "Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?" This question was representative of the insensitivity with which Ms. Rosin approached this topic.
Ms. Rosin, I agree with you that the extreme pressure of Palo Alto schools most certainly plays a significant role in "kids killing themselves." While you underestimated the role of mental illness in your article, I understand why you did so. You were trying to find the anomaly in Palo Alto that causes these awful events, and while mental illness (and the stigma surrounding it) is absolutely part of the problem, stress in Palo Alto schools is the thing that stands out the most.
I did not know either of the kids who killed themselves. However, I--unlike you-- was there to witness what happened on campus both of those awful days. I saw the looks on everyone's faces as the morning went on, and felt the awful knot in my stomach telling me that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. I listened as my teachers read aloud the robot-like school statements telling us what had happened. I like to think that our campus wears a mask of happy perfection most days, but on those days that mask crumbled. Kids all around me collapsed, crying and shaking with the knowledge that nothing would ever be the same. Our entire campus descended into an uncertain silence, broken only by the cries of those who had lost the most. Counselors and teachers hovered around us, but as much training as they had received and as much as they knew about suicide, I could tell that they, too, knew there was nothing they could do.
That was the worst part, Ms. Rosin. There was nothing I or the teachers or the counselors or the parents could do to make it better. Because it could not be ignored and it could not be resolved and it most certainly was not going to be okay.
Ms. Rosin, your article has reopened our barely healed wounds. Your article ends with this line: "They're kids, so they can still forget." My criticism of this line is twofold. First, calling us "kids" is patronizing, and belittles our thoughts and feelings. Even if at that time we weren't adults by conventional standards, I can assure you that we certainly all grew up on those days. Second, even I, a "kid" unrelated to either of those who committed suicide, remember the events of those days. And I can assure you, those days will always be imprinted on my mind and on the minds of my peers. So please, Ms. Rosin, do not claim we are lucky that we have young minds that can rebound from trauma.
PALO ALTO HIGH CLASS OF 2015
PALO ALTO, CALIF.
Like many others, I read "The Silicon Valley Suicides" in this month's Atlantic and it led me to reflect on my own experience at Palo Alto High School.
The pressure to succeed in high school is all too familiar to me. I distinctly remember being a freshman in high school, overwhelmed by the belief that my GPA over the next four years would make or break my life. My daily thought process was that every homework assignment, every project, every test could be the difference. The difference between a great college and a mediocre college. The difference between success and failure. The difference between happiness and misery.
I remember not being able to sleep well on Sunday nights, waking up covered in sweat from nightmares that I had just failed a test. I dreaded Sundays because it meant I just finished my weekend basketball tournament--my precious outlet from academics--and now faced a whole week of immense pressure at school. I felt the pressure coming from all around me--my parents, my peers, and worst of all, myself. I felt that I had one shot at high school and that my GPA, SAT score, and college applications were the only barometers of my success ...
As each year of high school passed by, I realized that even though there was pressure to be great, I had to make a personal choice not to define myself by my success and accomplishments. I learned through my brother, my pastor, and my friends that my identity and my worth were in more than my grades. Growing up my parents always said, "Do your best and trust God with the results." When I learned to truly understand what that meant, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
Separating myself from my results is not an easy lesson and I've had to relearn this in every stage of my life. The world will always need you to accomplish more, do more, succeed more. After I got into Harvard there was the pressure to get good grades and stand out at Harvard. After Linsanity there was the pressure to have great performances every night, to become an All-Star, to win championships. I still dream big and give my all in everything I do, but I know that success and failure are both fleeting.
When I was a freshman at Palo Alto High, a classmate who sat next to me committed suicide. I remember having difficulty registering what had happened. A year later, a friend committed suicide. I saw up close the pain and devastation of their loved ones and in my community. I realized then that there are so many burdens we don't see the people around us carrying. I told myself that I would try to be more sensitive and open to other people's struggles.
We may not have the answers to how to completely solve these issues, but we can take more time to really listen to each other, to reach out and have compassion for one another. I don't have any great insight and I don't know exactly what it's like to be a high-school student today. I do know that I'm proud to be from Palo Alto, a resilient community that I see striving to learn how to better support and care for each other. I hope that my personal experience can remind someone else that they are worth so much more than their accomplishments.
POINT GUARD, NBA'S CHARLOTTE HORNETS PALO ALTO HIGH CLASS OF 2006 EXCERPT FROM A FACEBOOK POST
I am an Asian Indian parent and my two children graduated from Gunn recently. As immigrant parents, we worked very, very hard to give our children an education we did not have: one that emphasized the joy of learning (with less emphasis on grades and tests), creativity, and balance between school and outside activities, and redefined what success means. I gave up a Silicon Valley career to be a full-time mom, to listen to my children and support their passion, to be there for them, and to help this community. I have lived in many communities, and I have found Palo Alto to be caring, honest, and open-minded.
I knew some of the children who took their lives on the train tracks. I know some of the parents whose children suffered depression, acknowledged it, and tried everything they could to find help. Every day I cross those train tracks and ask why. What could I have done? This is true of every parent here.
I agree with some of the issues Hanna Rosin raised. But something she did not address: Many teenagers in this country are depressed. These kids don't know how to get help or cannot afford help. There is a stigma about mental health, and many of our health-care programs do not adequately cover mental illness. The college-admissions process and the high-school structure are not conducive to the mental-health needs of our young people. I am not convinced this is a Silicon Valley problem alone, or an Asian cultural problem, or a problem with our medical establishment.
All I know is that the factors contributing to these suicides are complex and that this community is addressing them. We are not afraid to be judged and we are not stuck between fear and denial. We have not waited for Rosin's article to spur discussions, soul-searching, and conversations between many different ethnic and economic groups.
PALO ALTO, CALIF.
Thank you for writing this, Ms. Rosin. I have two children who went to a public high school a few towns north of Palo Alto, and the news of these suicides--which comes all too frequently--haunts me, as I'm sure it does most other local parents. While the pressure at my kids' school wasn't quite as intense, our school, too, regularly sends graduates to Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, as well as Ivies and other selective schools.
I agree that affluence has a corrupting influence on parents' expectations of their kids, but I also believe the blame lies very much at the feet of college admissions, including the ranking system of U.S. News & World Report, test prep for the SAT, and, yes, the fact that a third or more of the slots at some public colleges are given to out-of-state students, making the competition for spots akin to the admissions race at selective private colleges. And it's no wonder competition is so fierce: The cost of attending UCLA versus attending the University of Michigan, for example, is about half for a resident of California. There's strong motivation to put pressure on one's kid when the total four-year bill is $100,000 versus $200,000 for an out-of-state public school, or even more for a private college.
All that said, the bottom line is that parents have to get real. Gunn is a toxic environment. Period. I don't care how "good" the school is; it can't be all that great if 42 kids are hospitalized or treated for suicidal ideation.
Put limits on your kids' activities. Don't allow them to take more than one or two Advanced Placement classes in a given year. If they are up until 2 a.m. every night doing homework, something is amiss. You, Mom and Dad, can put the brakes on.
Colleges can do quite a bit to prevent teen suicides, and quite easily. How? By setting a minimum standard for admission (let's say a 3.5 GPA and an 1800 SAT score), and then using a lottery system to randomly select students from among all applicants who qualify.
There would be a lot less pressure on students to overachieve, since that would do nothing to improve their chances of admission. And since there are so many high-quality students these days, universities would probably end up with classes that are just as strong as those admitted under the current system.
LAKE FOREST PARK, WASH.
Hanna Rosin replies:
The Verde editorial mentions the guidelines on suicide reporting. I followed them faithfully. I left out many details I knew about the suicides and the suicide notes, and included a lengthy testimonial from someone who had attempted suicide and then learned to live a healthy life. Ultimately, though, the goal of those guidelines is not to keep reporting on suicides vague and hidden in the back pages of a newspaper. It's to keep kids safe and healthy. And in this case, part of that is getting people to really face the pressures on high-school kids, and how those pressures are making them miserable.
My aim was not to single out Palo Alto. I reported there because it's an example you can't ignore. But the scene is not all that different in Los Angeles or Houston or Washington, D.C., or anyplace where families have money and high expectations. In all these places, kids are being defined a little too much by their achievements.
Whose fault is it? That's hard to say. What's interesting about Jeremy Lin's Facebook post is that he can't locate a single source for the crushing pressure he felt--it came from parents, peers, "and worst of all, myself," he writes. It was, in other words, just there, preloaded. If I hope to accomplish anything with this article, it's to get people to pause and acknowledge that: The pressure is just there, and it doesn't matter anymore whose fault it is.
How to fix it? Someone pointed out to me that in eras past, there was usually a robust youth counterculture--hippies, antimaterialists, riot grrrls, grunge fans, punk rockers. Now it's hard to name one such group. Educators, mental-health experts, and parents might one day do their part to dial back the single-minded achievement culture, as the people in Palo Alto have already started to do. But, kids, I leave it to you.