Dissents From Palo Alto: The Students

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Photo emailed by a parent in Palo Alto: “one of the post-its left on kids’ cars in the parking lot of Gunn on November 6th, 2014,” two days after the school learned of Cameron Lee’s suicide.

We have received a wave of email from readers in Palo Alto and the surrounding communities over Hanna’s new cover story, “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” Much of the response is positive, much of it is negative, and there’s a whole lot in between. Compiled here is a big batch of the most critical emails from current and recent students from Palo Alto’s two high schools, Gunn and Paly. First up, a Gunn graduate (‘14):

While I am sure there are tons more articulate people from my community with better, more thoughtful things to say, I thought I’d share my reaction to this article: I’m kind of disgusted. This is yet another in a long string of articles that boils the problem down to academic pressure and parents. This article seemed to put in especially little time on mental illness (that specific phrase was used once, and “depression” came up four times). This is a trend in virtually every discussion about this topic, and every time I see my peers trying to address this problem on Facebook and comments sections, articles keep getting published.

Cameron Lee and Harry Lee are both mentioned in Rosin’s article (as well as others), but Cameron is focused on much more heavily. Speaking to friends and peers on Facebook who knew Harry better than I did, they expressed disgust at this handling of events. It was no secret that Harry had been dealing with depression and was apparently withdrawn leading up to his death. Rather than mentioning this at all, the article focuses on the shocking suicide of the athletic, successful, popular boy. This was personally upsetting to several people I talked to, both because they knew Harry, and more relevantly, because they felt like it trivialized their own struggle with depression and mental illness, as well as the struggle of others.

The article’s last paragraph feels condescending, and sentences like “Kids are tracked into ‘lanes’ in math and science and English, which become a big part of their social identity” ring completely untrue to me. Is there academic pressure at Gunn? Of course there is, but acting like this is the root of every single problem oversimplifies and confuses the issue. It genuinely feels like this article did the bare minimum to actually understand the culture and the environment at Gunn (I can’t personally speak to Paly).

This reader can:

As a Paly graduate (class of 2013), I’m disappointed to find that an exposé of the struggles of my home community boils down to the last line of the article, “They’re kids, so they can still forget.” This line dramatically oversimplifies the impact of having peers take their lives, just as the entire article oversimplifies the cultures of Paly and Gunn, the unique and personal reasons for suicidal students, and mental health in general.

It goes without saying that a community with four to five times the national suicide average has issues that need to be addressed. But it’s wrong to make sweeping claims for crippling internal battles, and it’s unfair and entirely unproductive to portray a passionless student body.

In my experience at Paly, it’s true that many of us felt subjected to a singular path to success—getting into the “right college”—and it’s true that the difference between a grade of 89.9 and 90.0 was the source of much unnecessary angst.

But it’s also true that we laughed in between classes, dominated the senior deck with music during lunch, joked during production, and fountain-hopped during cross country practice. To create the perception that Paly is purely dark and competitive is to pave the way for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Better is to draw attention to the beautiful moments that we found—that we insisted on making it through the stress and pressure.

Another Gunn grad (‘13):

(trigger warning: suicide)

I feel silenced by what is said about my community in The Atlantic’s article. You know why?

Having someone come into my community, to where I lived all my life and through four years of them with the constant reminder of this situation at my high school, and telling the world through a very public article about what is wrong with my community IS silencing to me and my fellow Palo Altans. This is not only an article that does not give a truthful representation of the city I love, but it’s biased in the framing of the “cluster” of suicides in our community. And the article blames certain groups of people (people of color, parents) for something that we may never understand.

Palo Alto WILL NEVER FORGET, and the article does nothing to talk about how students on campus have been giving support to other students within our community. Using the words “abolished” and “won” [in the the debate over early-morning classes at Gunn] changes the frame of how we as readers think of the situation; it’s seen as a battle, and that one group is winning over another. Truthfully, the article has defined our pain as the author sees it, not voicing how the community views it.

So yes, I feel silenced, which is why it took so long to me to write this. The Atlantic is a huge media hub that is well-recognized across the nation, as well as the world. Smearing Palo Alto and explaining the “problems” with the community does nothing to help the community from the already open scars (truthfully, they will never heal) and only triggers them.

This article makes the Palo Alto community hurt. It does not give us a clear sense of mind, nor does it give us solutions to the “problems” that are laid out by the author. Now all that other people will think about my alma mater, Gunn High School, is that it is “‘the suicide school’” [as conveyed to Hanna from local middle-school kids who call it that].

Why am I so upset, you say? There are people close to me who are directly affected by what is written here. These are people’s feelings that the author has written and painted to fit her argument. Not only does that limit the validity of our feelings, but it silences us to have to believe that these factors that she’s written down are the reasons for these suicides. People are trying to cope, but all this does is expose the wound for people not in our community to make decisions about why we are feeling what we are feeling.  

Even writing this comment is taking a toll on me. The author can never TRULY understand what is going on here, which is why it is so hard to read. She did not grow up in the community, she did not go to school here, she did not experience high school like Gunn students have, so how can she write about it like she knows what the problems are, and that our future generations will forget about this when they go to Gunn?

A current Paly student addresses Hanna:

I don’t think anyone will read this email, nor should they. I’m a teenager who believes she knows everything, when I know nothing. But I wanted to tell you my story. Maybe it’ll give me some solace, maybe it’ll help me sleep tonight.

I’m 17 and I go to Palo Alto High School. I’ve been in the district all my life. I have a fantastic rapport with people, and I have depression. For a long time, I wanted to kill myself. For a long time, my brother wanted to. And before that, my mother felt the urge. And before that, my great grandmother actually did. It’s in my genes to be depressed, to be anxious, to hate every cell in my body.

Maybe it was in the stars for me to be abused by friends and family. Maybe had I not been a kiss-ass wanting my parents attention, I would be dead. I want you to know what it’s like to fight a statistic. I think before you had gone ahead and judged people like me in that article, you should have at least heard me out. Because I am a survivor. Such a stupid phrase, but it’s true. I’m not a survivor of this town; it had nothing to do my depressive state. The atmosphere did not contribute in any way.

For some it could have been a factor. But I think I know that for those who have wanted to kill themselves, and have, Palo Alto is not what is making us cut ourselves, burn ourselves, starve ourselves, mutilate ourselves. It is those who do not get us, who demean us, who try to simplify our disorder in a sensationalized piece, writing as if they know everything.

Now I don’t want to put the blame on you. For you seem good at heart, you seem like you want to help. But have you ever starved yourself, hidden the marks on your skin, have had a panic attack everyday for years, have stood in the road trying to decide whether to move from the cars coming, held your brother’s gauged-out wrists, sent him to rehab, seen him in the psych ward on suicide watch, have your friends die on you, have your friend’s brother kill himself when you were ten? Have you taken a knife to your throat and want an earthquake to happen so that you are not the one responsible? Have you?

Please don’t defend your ignorance, I’m sure it’s bliss. But you’ve hurt me. No, I’m not suicidal or in a depressive state anymore. I have help, and I’m now going off medication because I am good. I am happy. I love myself and my family and my amazing best friend and dog. I am applying to college to become a teacher. I have passions, and although I don’t see my current self teaching and in college, I see a version of myself doing so and still being happy and true to herself. But I thought you should know me before you judged us kids who can’t help it.

I hope this doesn’t come off as hate. I hope that if you actually do read this, or emails like it, you don’t get sad or depressed and want to hurt yourself too. I hope that you are happy, and that you love yourself and what you are doing with your life. I wanted to be a writer. But I thought it’d be hard. I bet this is hard for you now, having an affluent community target you. So please be well. Do well for all us kids who aren’t well—across the whole nation, not just Palo Alto. And please—this is not sarcastic in any way—have a good day.

From a very recent graduate of Gunn (‘15):

I was the vice president of ROCK (Reach Out, Care, Know) on campus, a suicide prevention and Sources of Strength club. I helped my friends who were struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. In eighth grade, one of my best friends attempted suicide. I want to stress, unlike this article did, that she had, and still has, diagnosed bipolar disorder and depression.

The main “why” of suicide is mental illness. Stress can heighten mental illness, it can cause depression, but there is no evidence showing that this stress is what led to any of these suicides. Harry Lee was suicidal and depressed. His parents stressed that at his funeral. He had been fighting a mental illness for years, and the depression won.

I agree that we have a stress problem at Gunn. I would see my peers doing incredible internships and I even begged my mom to let me go to SAT camp. It didn’t matter in the end; I took the ACT and did more than fine on it, and I am at a university that makes me so happy. But I don’t think the choice to put the suicides on the cover and then say things that have been said in other pieces for pages on pages is just inconsiderate.

We should address mindfulness on campus. We should address the stigmatization of mental illness. We should be offered multiple paths of success from the very beginning of elementary school, as well as different views on what success is. I was interviewed for this article, and she completely disregarded everything we had to say that wasn’t “Gunn is known as the suicide school in the middle school communities.” She didn’t even mention my English teacher telling her that “if you want to know what Gunn students are really like, sit in my class for a day.”

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 this 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 be with people who are passionate about what I’m passionate about. But, when she characterizes the people I spent four years with, crying on the quad with, holding so tight because we thought we were going to fall apart, as soulless zombies, I take issue with that. In the words of Kathleen Blanchard, we are not data.

I ran all these dissents by Hanna and she’s probably crafting a follow-up note soon. But here’s one more Gunn graduate for now, addressing Hanna:

First, thank you for your article. I’m very grateful to you for being able to articulate what I’ve been thinking about my former city for years. However, I seem to be one of the few from Palo Alto who thinks positively of what you’ve had to say. A lot of the comments seem to stem from something along the lines of, “She didn’t focus on mental illness,” and to a degree I think they are right, but I also appreciate more what you have to say.

A little about me so you may understand where I am coming from. I graduated from Henry M. Gunn High School in 2012 and knew some of the original people who committed suicide back in 2009. Since then, the experience of attending Gunn has sort of haunted me. I hated my time in Palo Alto and I’m frankly glad I never have to go back. Like many you interviewed for the article, I am wildly accomplished, but I won’t go into specifics.

All you need to know is that I was miserable despite this. I had all these incredible achievements wrapped up with my self worth and it was detrimental to my mental health. I only valued myself in terms of what I had accomplished, instead of who I was. I felt isolated from my parents, I was lost and timid, I didn’t question anything, and I was never intellectually curious. The only things that I ever focused on was accruing more achievements.

However, upon graduating, I moved to NYC to study Anthropology and Art History and experienced a completely different and diverse environment from the toxic and homogenous one I left. It’s taken many years but I can now confidently say I am happy with myself.

Upon moving to NYC, I’ve learned more about myself than I ever could have in Palo Alto. I have learned that I am more than just my resume, and that I am a human capable of holding pride in who I am as an individual. It took three years of extended leave from Palo Alto realize this. So I thank you for finally identifying to me the problems that the culture and myself are/were guilty of, problems that I’ve had to fix unknowingly.

I think those in my hometown choosing to ignore the larger implications of society are almost saying there’s nothing at all wrong with Palo Alto. They’re completely sidestepping the problem. Yes, I agree a lot of the problem is mental health issues, but to blame the mass suicides on that is to isolate the individuals and eliminate responsibility for the community and culture. Culture affects people and many Palo Altans don’t realize that.

They also don’t realize that given the city’s socioeconomic privilege, we live in a bubble where hard capitalism is the norm. Being purely capitalistic, which I think a lot of my peers are, is problematic.

I think that you’ve rightly turned the attention to the wider community. Obviously, like you said, no one wants to be criticized amidst tragedy, but isn’t it tragedy that brings upon change? I think your article will promote dialogue and hopefully positive change in my hometown. I think it’s time we stop looking at ourselves with rose-colored glasses and really evaluate the culture we come from, in order to find a solution.

Thank you again for writing this article. It was very difficult for me to read and it opened a lot of wounds and tears, but after reading it, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I could finally breathe again.