My daughter went to Paly (where she was a student during that horrible 2009 season), finally dropped out after a suicide attempt, and was never able to fully recover. She killed herself last year.
I’m sure we inadvertently pushed her, though I spent most of my time telling her I just wanted to see her find something she cared about. But I think most of the pressure was just the environment. She had always gotten a lot of satisfaction from doing well in classes, but in Palo Alto you have to be Einstein to stand out. Everybody else is just average. And that’s really hard for a bright kid looking for a way to be special.
I remember her complaining all through 8th grade that the teachers were constantly telling them how hard high school was going to be. By the time she hit Paly, she was already panicked about what junior year was going to be like—AP classes, incredible amounts of homework, no free time whatsoever. Before she even got started, she was overwhelmed.
Extracurriculars were just more of the same—kids who had been doing the activity since kindergarten in after-school and summer camps and who were scathing to anyone who wasn’t proficient. From what I saw, the kids were as bad as anyone about upping the bar. It’s a culture that just seems to feed on itself. All that matters is achievement.
I’m sure there were many other factors in my daughter’s case, but I’m also sure that what started that headlong slide into depression was intense anxiety over a period of years. And the environment in Palo Alto was a big part of that.
One of the central characters in Hanna’s new cover story on the suicide clusters in Palo Alto is Taylor Chiu, who tried to take her own life as a high school freshman in 2002. From Hanna’s piece:
Her first semester, Chiu got an F on a geometry test, which “totally traumatized me.” Her relationship with her parents started to fray, “because it just took too much energy to speak in a polite tone of voice.” She began to dread swim practice and even Girl Scouts and band, “but I didn’t want to be a quitter.” She remembers wishing that someone had broken up with her, or that she was anorexic, or that she had some reason to explain to her parents why she felt so sad. “I also felt like I was already saying that I was too stressed, and nobody—neither my parents nor my teachers—seemed to care or take me seriously.” She didn’t want to ask for a break, she said, because people would think she was lazy.
“But having a mental disorder? That’s serious. People would listen to that.” It would be, she thought, like a man being held back from a fight: He would never have to admit he couldn’t win.
Taylor emails her thoughts on the cover story and her community’s reaction to it:
This article is pretty monumental for me, in that I’ve never been open about my suicide attempt before this, not even to my closest friends and family. I just hope that the significance of my “coming out” means that people will really begin to listen to what I have to say.
Overall, I am pleased with the article. My criticism is slight, and it is only that I wish it had emphasized the optimism and hope that still exists in Palo Alto. Hanna’s last sentence can read as optimistic, and I choose to see it that way, but it is vague and flippant enough that I expect it to be quite controversial. But that’s journalism, and I understand that.
When my close friend and mentor Julia Tachibana asked if I would be willing to contribute to Hanna’s piece, I was initially doubtful that anyone could bring a fresh perspective to the issue of suicide in Palo Alto. The scrutiny of Palo Alto’s suicides began for me long before the first “cluster” in 2009. I was a sophomore at Paly when Steven Wertheimer, also a student at Paly, died of suicide on the tracks in 2002. He was the first student suicide by train that I’d ever heard of. Julia’s brother Ben’s death came shortly after that, and I cried through his memorial. What could Hanna say that hasn’t already been said?
Indeed, Hanna covers the common themes—academic pressure, a culture of excellence, many attempts by city and school officials to control a complex situation, the ironic and controversial dysfunction of kids who “have it all,” race, parenting styles, academic course loads, school schedules, the physical omnipresence of the train. She covers all the angles, and yet the criticism has already begun to roll in, as loud and intrusive as the train itself. Her denigrators claim she “oversimplifies”, “sensationalizes”, “stereotypes”, “contradicts” and “invalidates”—and that she raises more questions than answers.
Let’s consider for a minute the environment that Hanna navigated for months while researching this piece.
Parents, teachers, city officials, health officials, and students seem to be always at odds with each other, pointing fingers in every direction. Even within those groups, factions have broken out arguing for all varieties of solution and change at home, at school, online, and near the tracks. Nothing has been said that hasn’t been refuted in five different ways. Scrolling through the comments section of any article on the topic, the negativity and criticism radiating from every opinion is as sickening and captivating as rubbernecking slowly past a traffic accident. Everyone has their opinion, and everyone feels justified in sharing it, because they too can relate.
It is abundantly clear: we can all relate.
And yet despite this shared experience, despite all of our empathy and opining, students continue to die for reasons we don’t understand and can’t fully control. It is easy enough to criticize, and to research, and to recommend expert opinion. But it is difficult to contribute meaningfully to the conversation when everyone around you is yelling.
It has taken me ten years to speak up about my experience. My closest friends and even some of my family will be shocked to first learn of my story in a national publication. Even when I decided that I wanted to share my experience in order to help others, I struggled to find a voice and a platform. Although I’m a certified teacher and have plenty of experience with students, when I offered to share my story in schools, I was met with at best ambivalence, and at worst, apathy and distrust. Volunteer groups initially welcomed my participation, only to have their projects stunted by bureaucracy and red tape.
In some ways, I understand: Nobody wants to add yet another soapbox to the circus. But the overarching message I’m hearing from Palo Alto’s community leaders, parents, and even students themselves is: “We’ve done all the research. We’re finding solutions. We’ve got it. Leave us alone.” Even the pre-emptive letter to the community by Dr. Durbin that you posted implies as much.
So, what new perspective does Hanna add to the mix? Humility. She writes:
What we’ve lost, perhaps, is a sense that there may be things about [our students] we can’t know or understand, and that that mysterious quality, separate from us, is what we should marvel at. It’s just a call for humility, a short pause to acknowledge that a sense of absolute certainty about what children should do or be or how they should operate is part of what landed us here.
We just don’t know the answers. You don’t know any better than I do, or than your daughter or son does, or your neighbor, doctor, or school principal does. There are many factors that cause suicide, and they all interact in myriad ways, both predictable and unpredictable.
Palo Alto is a unique, fascinating, troubling, marvelous place, both extraordinary and extraordinarily mundane; remarkable, and remarkably normal. Let that confuse you; sit with that contradiction; become comfortable with the inconvenience of not fully understanding. Accept that we may never understand, and move forward with the humility that you do not have all the answers. None of us do.
Your children will benefit to hear you admit you don’t know. Your students will learn as they watch you develop an opinion, and then re-evaluate it, and then acknowledge its potential flaws. They will grow comfortable with being wrong sometimes. They’ll learn to live, even happily, with not having all the answers.
Watching you, they will become adept at admitting hardship, and it won’t be as daunting each time they do. They will develop resilience. They will not flinch from hard questions. And they will move forward. Whether on a math test or in tragedy, your students might not want to forget, but you can show them that forgetting—as well as failing, hurting, and not knowing—are all acceptable responses. And they can develop the capacity to do each of them well, if they so choose.
Taylor’s email is from a big wave of response we’ve received this week from members of the Palo Alto community and we’re still sorting it all. In the coming days and weeks, Notes will air all kinds of reactions and criticisms of the cover story, as well as stories from people in Palo Alto and others affected by suicide. A huge thanks to everyone who’s written in so far. We can’t include everything, of course, but we’ll do our very best to show as many sides to this subject as possible.
Last week, the superintendent of Palo Alto schools sent a letter to parents in the district warning that my Atlantic article (just posted online) would “cast a pall over our community.” This was before he had read the story. Then before the story had been posted, Palo Alto Online ran an item today headlined “Palo Alto officials brace for story in The Atlantic magazine.” That item generated angry comments, some of which were directed at said officials.
For me, this served as a measure of just how sensitive the community is. Nobody in the middle of a tragedy likes to be scrutinized, particularly by an outsider. The only benefit to that scrutiny is airing some of the issues everyone is thinking about anyway.
Our hope is that the story will spur a useful discussion, among educators, mental health experts, and teenagers. To that end, we will host some of that discussion in our new Notes section. While we can not share every reaction we receive, of course, we welcome contributors, especially from the Palo Alto community: email@example.com.
We have already received one contribution, from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Meg Durbin, M.D., one of the “Palo Alto officials” cited in the aforementioned headline from Palo Alto Online. Dr. Durbin, who received an advanced copy of the Atlantic article, wants us to know that the following letter has been “vetted by a wide variety of community partners: city officials, school staff and superintendent, physicians, and media specialists.” She continues:
[The new Atlantic cover story] highlights some critical issues in our community. Some of our challenges are mirrored elsewhere, and others may hope to learn from our experience and our responses.
As we grieve the loss of any youth, we are gratified by the enormous dedication and collaboration of local community leaders, teens, and families to address the myriad challenges the suicides have brought to light. We are facing these issues candidly, publicly, and with heartfelt compassion. We are guided by the scientific evidence about what works, by advice from national and local experts, and by the voices of our own youth. We have asked the CDC to help assess local suicide risk factors, to advise what we should supplement from the “best practices” already implemented.
We are addressing the risk factors that can lead youth from stress to distress, to overt depression and anxiety, to suicidal thoughts and actions. Over the past six years, we have implemented and continually refine many specific steps and programs to improve youth well being: decreasing stigma about addressing mental health concerns, reducing academic and performance pressure, improving mental health care, reducing access to means of self harm, and improving public and media communication about these issues.
Our city convened “Project Safety Net,” coordinating the work of the many public and private organizations focused on teen wellbeing. We have worked with media about to write responsibly about suicide and to reduce the risk of contagion fostered by sensationalistic reporting. Many resources for teen and families with concerns can be found at AFSP.org, HEARDAlliance.org, and 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Here’s a PDF containing a “Comprehensive Suicide Prevention Toolkit for Schools.”
Our schools bolstered living skills courses to reduce stigma and address wellbeing holistically, eliminated early morning academic classes, implemented block scheduling, reduced homework, started peer and teacher-mentor support programs, educated parents about teen mental health (including meeting with multi ethnic groups), added mental health specialists, and adopted nationally known programs (Sources of Strength, Break Free from Depression, etc).
Our major local health care organizations formed a collaborative, with initial focus on training primary care physicians to screen and treat teens routinely for mental health issues, and know when to refer. New “navigators” surmount notorious difficulties in accessing mental health care specialists, linking teens directly to therapists and psychiatrists. A new youth wellbeing center at Stanford’s Psychiatry Department will consolidate their clinical care and research.
Our city has addressed “means restriction,” limiting access and improving visibility along the rail line, adding motion detectors, and staffing guards 24/7 at rail crossings.
Finally (and really firstly), are many student-led efforts, to manage stress and pressures to succeed. Students’ projects include a high school peer support program (“ROCK:” Reach Out, Care, Know), a documentary (“Unmasked”), and a newspaper series (“Change the Narrative”), where students share stories of strength, hope, and healing.
We embrace our responsibility to help our youth grow into happy, healthy, well-rounded adults. We are grateful to have the commitment and talents of a diverse, passionate, fully engaged community.
“I’ve made a complete break mentally with the world I used to live in.”
Tucker Carlson does not think he is an “especially” good person. He knows he can “get mad” and “make a mistake,” that he can “overstate” things as a result of getting “caught up” in his own rhetoric. He also knows he can sometimes get “self-righteous,” and this, as we speak on the set of his Fox News show on a recent Friday, seems to bother him the most. Because it is everything Carlson disdains in others—the elitist sensibility that, in his mind, leads figures such as former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power to espouse a worldview whose essence, as he puts it, is “I’m a really good person, and you’re not.”
This is in large part how a wealthy Washingtonian like Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson—with his prep-school education and summer home in Maine—convinces millions of viewers, weeknight after weeknight, that he is one of them. It’s not just that Carlson purports to have empathy where he believes others—such as the Stanford Law professor Pamela Karlan, who testified in favor of President Donald Trump’s impeachment and whom Carlson calls a “drooling moron”—lack it. Carlson also enjoys reminding his viewers that the same people who for years told you that you were wrong, that you were a bad person, have long ago written him off, too.
His impact in a short period of time has been revolutionary, and his resounding victory means he can remake the country.
The Britain that has emerged today is different from the one that came before, its old political map erased, its economic model upended, its prospects uncertain—even its very unity in doubt. The Britain built by Tony Blair is gone, fatally undermined by David Cameron’s Brexit referendum and now swept away in a provincial tide of support for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
To understand the scale of what has happened, remember that less than four years ago, Johnson was still London’s mayor and undecided about whether to back Leave or Remain in the referendum; Cameron was prime minister, with the first Conservative majority in more than 20 years; and Britain’s economy was among the most dynamic in Europe. A poll carried out the day before Johnson announced that he supported Brexit showed Remain running 15 percentage points ahead of Leave.
Your body begins to betray you. You have neither the vitality of youth nor the license of old age. But being over the hill has its pleasures.
From the outside it looks steady.
It looks resolved. Sitting heavily in a chair, with settled opinions and stodgy shoes—there’s something unbudgeable about the middle-aged person. The young are dewy and volatile; the old are toppling into fragility. But the middle-aged hold their ground. There’s a kind of magnetism to this solidity, this dowdy poise, this impressively median state.
But on the inside … You’re in deep flux. A second puberty, almost. Inflammations, precarious accelerations. Dysmorphic shock in the bathroom mirror: Jesus, who is that? Strange new acts of grooming are suddenly necessary. Maybe you’ve survived a bout of something serious; you probably have a couple of fussy little private afflictions. You need ointment. It feels like a character flaw. Maybe it is a character flaw.
Feeling out of step with the mores of contemporary life, members of a conservative-Catholic group have built a thriving community in rural Kansas. Could their flight from mainstream society be a harbinger for the nation?
Half an hour down the highway from Topeka, Kansas, not far from the geographic center of the United States, sits the town of St. Marys. Like many towns in the region, it is small, quiet, and conservative. Unlike many towns in the region, it is growing. As waves of young people have abandoned the Great Plains in search of economic opportunity, St. Marys has managed to attract families from across the nation. The newcomers have made the radical choice to uproot their lives in pursuit of an ideological sanctuary, a place where they can raise their children according to values no longer common in mainstream America.
The failure of countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean helps explain the difficulty of carrying out successful climate-change negotiations.
Most of the world’s seas are in some kind of environmental trouble, but few have declined as quickly or from such precipitous heights as the Mediterranean’s eastern edge. Although it midwifed some of history’s greatest civilizations, the eastern Med has become a grubby embodiment of the current littoral states’ failures. Where the ancients sailed, many of their successors now junk industrial waste. The accomplishments of the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, and pharaonic Egyptians, among others, have only accentuated their descendants’ political and economic rot.
In recent years, the eastern Med has come to something of a “now or never” moment to salvage, or savage, the sea once and for all. Big, new offshore gas finds have set the countries along its banks against one another as they jockey for a share of the riches. Renewed great-power games, particularly over Syria, have turned the sea into even more of a geopolitical battleground. In some parts of it, warships and air forces from as far afield as Pakistan warily crisscross its waters. With much of Europe fixated on migrant flows across the Continent’s southern border, there are more obstacles to addressing the eastern Med’s environmental woes than ever before.
In pronouncing the outspoken quarterback’s career dead, the league underscored its own unwillingness to let players exercise their own power.
When the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, declared yesterday that the league had “moved on” from the embattled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the finality of Goodell’s tone answered the question about whether Kaepernick would ever play professional football again.
Kaepernick became persona non grata in the National Football League after the 2016 season, during which he protested police violence against African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem. The league then spent more than two years trying to make him go away, but seemed to relent by scheduling a workout for him last month in Atlanta. But that proposed session didn’t happen on the NFL’s terms, and Goodell, in his first public comments about the matter, implied yesterday that Kaepernick had blown his last chance.
America rarely uses an apprenticeship model to teach young people a trade. Could such a system help the unemployed?
At last, unemployment is easing. But the latest low rate—hovering below 6 percent–obscures a deeper, longer-term problem: “skills mismatches” in the labor force, which will only worsen in years to come. According to the most recent figures, 9.3 million Americans are unemployed, but 4.8 million jobs stand empty because employers can’t find people to fill them. With new technology transforming work across a range of sectors, more and more businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to man new machines and manage new processes.
One solution has enchanted employers, educators, and policymakers on both sides of the aisle: European-style apprenticeship. The Obama administration is about to announce $100 million worth of apprenticeship grants—and wants to spend another $6 billion over the next four years. Meanwhile, lawmakers as different as Democratic Senator Cory Booker and Republican Senator Marco Rubio have expressed interest in the idea.
American conservatives who find themselves identifying with Putin’s regime refuse to see the country for what it actually is.
Sherwood Eddy was a prominent American missionary as well as that now rare thing, a Christian socialist. In the 1920s and ’30s, he made more than a dozen trips to the Soviet Union. He was not blind to the problems of the U.S.S.R., but he also found much to like. In place of squabbling, corrupt democratic politicians, he wrote in one of his books on the country, “Stalin rules … by his sagacity, his honesty, his rugged courage, his indomitable will and titanic energy.” Instead of the greed he found so pervasive in America, Russians seemed to him to be working for the joy of working.
Above all, though, he thought he had found in Russia something that his own individualistic society lacked: a “unified philosophy of life.” In Russia, he wrote, “all life is focused in a central purpose. It is directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation that life seems to have supreme significance.”
The president’s clash with Beijing accomplished little—and bodes ill for the growing conservative movement to confront the world’s second superpower.
President Donald Trump promised yesterday that peace is at hand in his trade war upon China. “We have agreed to a very large Phase One Deal with China,” he tweeted at 10:25 a.m. “They have agreed to many structural changes and massive purchases of Agricultural Product, Energy, and Manufactured Goods, plus much more.” Beijing also announced that the two sides had reached an agreement.
Yet the first reports on the details suggest something less than a “very large” deal—it seems more a pause and truce. Still, the world will be spared the round of United States tariffs that were scheduled for December 15. By 2020, Trump's trade wars could cost the global economy $700 billion, the International Monetary Fund estimates. More tariffs would have cost more still.
Slack, one of Silicon Valley’s more diverse companies, has hired three formerly incarcerated coders.
Jesse Aguirre’s workday at Slack starts with a standard engineering meeting—programmers call them “standups”—where he and his co-workers plan the day’s agenda. Around the circle stand graduates from Silicon Valley’s top companies and the nation’s top universities. Aguirre, who is 26, did not finish high school and has so far spent most of his adulthood in prison; Slack is his first full-time employer. But in the few years he has been writing code, he has cultivated what is perhaps the most useful skill in any software engineer’s arsenal: the ability to figure things out on his own.
Aguirre, along with Lino Ornelas and Charles Anderson, make up the inaugural cohort of Next Chapter, an initiative launched by Slack, in partnership with the Last Mile, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Free America, to help formerly incarcerated individuals land jobs in tech. Last year, when Next Chapter launched as an apprenticeship program at Slack—but didn’t guarantee full-time employment—Alexis C. Madrigal wrote in this publication, “Offering an apprenticeship rather than a permanent job may not seem like a huge distinction, but multiple advocates for formerly incarcerated people called attention to this part of the program design.”