World

The Palo Alto high school suicide mystery probed

In Palo Alto, California, the Silicon Valley city that has given birth to HP, Tesla Motors, Facebook and Google, the shrill horn of incoming trains bring a constant reminder of young lives lost too soon.

For the last seven years, trains have been the suicide technique of choice among teenagers here where the adolescent suicide rate has soared to five times the national average.

Gunn High School in Palo Alto.
Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Photo: Gunn HS

It was in this way that a bright, popular, goofy kid named Cameron Lee ended his life in November 2014. By then, his classmates at Henry M. Gunn High School were all too accustomed to this sort of inexplicable tragedy. They hailed, after all, from a part of the country that had become known for its affluence, technical ingenuity and the number of kids that had been pushed to the brink.

"I am 15 years old and I just organised a memorial," Isabelle Blanchard, the sister of one suicide victim, told The Atlantic.

It is an eerie refrain that has played out again and again.

Over the course of nine months in 2009 and 2010, six Palo Alto teenagers died by suicide. Between 2010 and 2014, an average of 20 children and young adults died of suicide annually in Santa Clara County.

The deaths in Palo Alto constitute two recent "suicide clusters" (multiple suicides within a short time frame), of which there are an average of five in the entire US each year. Having two in the same city in less than a decade is extremely rare.

The students died on the tracks, but also by hanging, jumping off a roof or overpass. Each time it happened, their classmates mourned them, and their distraught parents sought answers.

In response to what Santa Clara County officials have called an urgent public health problem, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is launching an epidemiological study on teen suicide in the area. A team of suicide-prevention specialists are arriving in Santa Clara this week for a two-week visit.

While these federal teams generally act on infectious disease outbreaks, the San Jose Mercury News reported, this investigation signals a rare instance of CDC dispatching a unit for a chronic health issue.

In November 2014, the CDC conducted similar research in Fairfax, Virginia.

Community members hope that the study will yield responses to the question that has plagued them for the last seven years, when the first suicides began:

If these kids were given everything they needed to succeed, why were so many choosing to or contemplating giving up on life altogether?

In the note that Lee left behind, he wrote that no one was to blame. Not school, or family, or friends. He had felt simply that he had no future in the world – the same world in which he got good grades and was well-loved by many.

As The Atlantic's Hanna Rosin noted in her cover story in December, 74 per cent of Gunn students have at least one graduate-degree-holding parent. The high school has been ranked among the nation's top five in science education. About 20 students get into Stanford University every year.

At the same time, when Rosin attended a school meeting halfway through the academic year in 2015, it was announced that 42 Gunn students had been sent to hospital and treated for having suicidal thoughts since the northern autumn.

The city's other public high school, Palo Alto High School has a similarly accomplished record, with SAT scores surpassing state averages by nearly 200 points.

The median household income in Palo Alto is $US121,465 ($170,000), double California's median.

In "The Problem With Rich Kids", published by Psychology Today in November 2013, former Yale psychologist Suniya Luthar​ noted that social, emotional and behavioural issues are as prevalent in the wealthy end of the socioeconomic spectrum as they are on the poor end.

On average, rich offspring experience serious levels of depression and anxiety at twice the national rates, she said.

"The evidence all points to one cause underlying the different disturbances documented: pressure for high-octane achievement," Dr Luthar wrote. "The children of affluent parents expect to excel at school and in multiple extracurriculars and also in their social lives ... It plays out in crippling anxiety and depression, about anticipated or perceived achievement 'failures.'"

Shortly after Lee's death, a 16-year-old Gunn classmate named Martha Cabot uploaded a YouTube video urging Palo Alto parents to change their attitudes.

"Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements," she said. "I'm trying to raise awareness – especially for the parents. We love our moms and we love our dads, but calm down."

Students and alumni of Gunn and Palo Alto have rallied around the cause of suicide prevention and awareness, eager to help their schools shed the reputation they have gained in recent years.

A website called "Henry M. Gunn Gives Me Hope" collects pearls of optimism related to the school.

One senior wrote: "Gunn gives me hope because even though we are an entirely new group of students, we are still able to react to our tragedies in supportive and caring ways. Although I certainly have not yet fully processed what has happened, our school has already gone to the ends of the earth to help students that are reeling."

Washington Post

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