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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
The comedian’s employees say that fame has enabled callousness and abuse on her show. The warm testimonies of her superstar friends highlight their point.
Famous people want the world to know that Ellen DeGeneres is nice to famous people. Addressing media reports alleging a culture of harassment and bullying at DeGeneres’s talk show, the singer Katy Perry tweeted Tuesday that she’s “only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen.” Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Hart, Jay Leno, Diane Keaton, and the superstar agent Scooter Braun have all recently made similar declarations about DeGeneres’s kindness, so as to push back against claims painting her as callous toward staffers, fans, and other entertainment-industry figures. “Looking forward to the future where we get back to loving one another,” Hart wrote, blasting those who have criticized DeGeneres and called for her to step down. “This hate shit has to stop.”
Boris Johnson has faced his share of blame for the country’s death count. But the British system was failing long before the coronavirus struck.
Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s leaders asked their people to do three things, captured in one pithy slogan: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”
On the first of those edicts, Britons largely followed through. Main streets, town centers, and public spaces were mostly abandoned, and the government pulled together a far-reaching job-protection program, ensuring that those who feared losing their jobs felt safe enough to not go to work.
The second request was more unusual. During the pandemic, Britain was the only major country in the world to make protecting its National Health Service a central goal. Signs and placards went up outside people’s homes, declaring their appreciation. The words Thank You NHS can now be seen on sidewalks and soccer jerseys, in children’s bedrooms and even, until recently, the windows of 10 Downing Street. In part, this worked. The NHS adapted to the crisis at extraordinary speed, creating the emergency capacity required to deal with the surge of patients. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson was released from the hospital after contracting COVID-19, he said that Britain was winning its battle against the disease because the public had “formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset,” the NHS.
Short of an outright constitutional crisis, a lot could still go horribly wrong.
A brazen refusal by the president to leave office is surely a nightmare scenario. But even if President Donald Trump were to lose and accept the results on November 3 or soon thereafter, he could nevertheless wreak significant damage during the period between the election and the inauguration of Joe Biden—endangering the incoming administration, at best, and actively sabotaging it, at worst.
Presidential transitions are perilous even in normal times. With each inauguration of a new president every four to eight years, the executive branch undergoes a massive overhaul; more than 4,000 new political appointees flood into federal departments and agencies, including 1,200 senior officials who require Senate confirmation. The minute a new president is sworn in, his administration assumes responsibility for everything from nuclear launch codes to pandemic response, economic policy, and counterterrorism—at the very moment when the government’s capacity is most diminished. At the Defense Department alone, the nation’s largest employer and perhaps the world’s most complex organization, the top 59 senior civilian leaders, from the secretary of defense on down, are political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. A private-sector company would be crazy to emulate this approach, yet the security, the health, and the prosperity of Americans depend on its success.
American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase.
If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world.
The rumors began with a video depicting a black-clad figure in the group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask. “Greetings, citizens of the United States,” the figure said in a creepy, distorted voice. “This is a message from Anonymous to the Minneapolis Police Department.” The masked announcer addressed Floyd’s killing and the larger pattern of police misconduct, concluding, “We will be exposing your many crimes to the world. We are legion. Expect us.”
The clip generated a wave of renewed enthusiasm for Anonymous, particularly among young people. Twitter accounts associated with the group saw a surge of new followers, a couple of them by the millions.
They’re hoping that the vice-presidential nominee will be as malleable as Joe Biden.
The far left of the Democratic Party spent much of the primary attacking Kamala Harris, decrying her as an untrustworthy “cop” whose overtures to the left were half-hearted and opportunistic. But with Joe Biden naming the senator from California as his running mate, some progressive leaders and activists, including Harris skeptics, sound reluctantly optimistic about what the pair could achieve.
The progressives I interviewed seem to view Harris and Biden as similar figures, occupying an “in-between space” in American politics, as one activist put it to me. Their political identities and agendas are a muddled mix of the old establishment Democratic politics and the progressivism of the surging Millennial left—a combination progressives believe they can work with. They think that, just as Biden has already welcomed progressive input in his campaign, Harris could be malleable, a potential vice president they can push in their ideological direction.
A long obsession with Mars makes all the other worlds seem a little neglected.
Paul Byrne loves Mars. He wrote his doctoral thesis and several research papers about the planet. Most of his graduate students study Mars. And yet, earlier this year, he posed this question on Twitter: “If you could end the pandemic by destroying one of the planets, which one would you choose and why would it be Mars?”
What does Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, have against the red planet? Nothing, he told me. But everyone else loves Mars too, and maybe a little too much.
Aside from Earth and the moon, humankind has studied Mars more than any other world in the universe. In the United States, many planetary scientists are devoted, in one way or another, to the study of Mars. Since 1996, NASA has sent more than a dozen robots to orbit, rove, dig, and hop around the planet. The latest NASA rover, Perseverance, departed for Mars in July, days after China and the United Arab Emirates launched their own missions to the planet.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
No matter what happens now, the virus will continue to circulate around the world.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurgingin manyof the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.
The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.
Saudi leaders have figured out what makes the president tick like few others have.
The joke, a throwaway quip, somehow captured the man and the moment—the end of one era, and the beginning of another. It was January 2017, and then–British Prime Minister Theresa May was in the White House, the first foreign leader to visit the new president of the United States, Donald Trump. For May, the trip had gone well: Pleasantries had been exchanged, faux pas avoided, commitments to NATO and the special relationship gleaned. Then came the press conference.
“Mr. President,” the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, called on by May, began, “you’ve said before that torture works; you’ve praised Russia; you’ve said you want to ban some Muslims from coming to America; you’ve suggested there should be punishment for abortion. For many people in Britain, those sound like alarming beliefs. What do you say to our viewers at home who are worried about some of your views and are worried about you becoming the leader of the free world?” A momentary silence followed. Smiling, Trump turned to his guest: “This was your choice of a question?” The room burst into laughter. Then came the punch line: “There goes that relationship.”