There are probably so many reasons for teen suicide, but one that I keep coming back to is sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a form of TORTURE. Among everything else we should be trying to do to help kids, one biggie is to help them get enough sleep.
How is it that all these parents, many of whom are moms who know about sleep deprivation and post-partum depression, aren’t wising up to the sleep-depression connection? For example: “One study found that sleep disturbance alone — even after controlling for other risk factors — increased women’s likelihood of developing postpartum depression.” Look, I’m not trying to oversimplify, but it boggles my mind that no one’s really talking about the role of sleep in all this.
Hanna actually mentions the sleep factor many times in her cover story, but it’s worth highlighting more. From Hanna: “[T]he American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended in 2014 starting high school no earlier than 8:30, because studies show that a host of adolescent mental-health issues are related to insufficient sleep.” Here's more from The Atlantic on those AAP recommendations. And here are a few links to prominent studies on the sleep-suicide connection:
For more than a hundred years, experts have recognized interrelated connections between sleep, depression and suicide: At least three-quarters of clinically depressed people struggle with sleep, and insomnia is a well-proven risk factor for suicide across different cultures and age groups. Moreover, sleep disturbances increase the likelihood of non-depressed people becoming depressed. We don’t yet have any tidy divine theory to tie these pieces together, but researchers are working hard to get us there.
Another reader wonders if the Caltrain running through Palo Alto had an indirect effect on the teens who took their own lives:
Reading Rosin’s article, I kept coming back to the omnipresence of the train itself and the sound pollution from the train. Sound pollution is an environmental stressor that affects health in a variety of ways—disrupting sleep, increasing cortisol levels, etc. Sound pollution may have more profound impacts on those who are more sound sensitive or already stressed. It could be one of the factors that needs to be investigated and addressed. There is plenty of research on sound pollution and health, though it seems to be largely ignored in the U.S.
That reminds me of this haunting passage from Hanna’s piece:
As Kathleen [Blanchard] and I talked in her living room, I heard a train send out its alarm, and she caught my startled look. “My son died right there,” she said, pointing out the window. The tracks were a block from the house. He’d grown up to the sound of the train, while brushing his teeth, doing his homework, falling asleep—every 20 minutes or so. That morning, she’d dropped him off at school and he’d walked right to the tracks.
This generation of well-to-do kids has been raised by self-absorbed, surgically youthful, eternity-seeking narcissists who just can’t quit wanting to provide themselves ever-more-exciting experiences. These parents never wanted to grow up, so they refused to parent properly, and they certainly never sacrificed themselves enough to do what was necessary to provide their kids with proximate family nearby. These kids emotionally raised themselves.
To constantly applaud a kid like a trained seal, to throw money at him, and to pretend to be as young as he is, and his best pal, is NOT parenting. These kids were raised by cloth mothers and cloth fathers, and no true emotional security of any sort.
A Gunn student has a graceful response to that reader:
I respectfully disagree. I am a high schooler in Palo Alto, and Harry Lee was my best friend before he passed away. Growing up with him and his family, I can tell you that his parents are perhaps the most loving, caring pair of individuals I have ever met. Harry’s two sisters are both chasing their dreams as artists, with their parents’ full support. And while he was around, Harry had passions for cycling, dance, and music, none of which came were influenced or even relevant at all to his parents. Even while he was ailed with depression, his parents were there for him all the time.
While it may be easy to think that there is a catch-all “cause” or source of blame, you can’t just oversimplify an issue that has so many different factors leading into it, because at the end of they day, Palo Alto parents are people too and they’re not all the same.
Although there may very well be parents who are “self-absorbed, surgically youthful, eternity-seeking narcissists,” you are doing those caring parents a horrible injustice. While many kids may have in fact, like you said, “emotionally raised themselves,” are your parents directly responsible for your emotional development? Are you saying that children SHOULD be emotionally reliant on their parents, as they try to find their own independence through adolescence?
Another reader focuses on the class side of the debate:
Affluent kids can easily get over-scheduled because their families can afford to enroll them in any and every program out there. SAT tutoring, club sports, flute lessons, dance classes, fencing, Judo, math enrichment—you want it, Silicon Valley got it. I am in no way pointing the finger at this as the root cause of this tragic problem, but in an area where getting a competitive edge is desired, there is a constant temptation to throw money into enrichment activities, especially when everyone else is doing it too. Middle-class families don’t have the luxury of affording all these choices, so their kids usually choose sports OR music, dance OR space camp. Affluent kids check the “all of the above” box.
A Palo Alto parent:
That detail in Rosin’s piece about the suicide survivor going to Harvard drove me crazy. I’m a parent in this community, and we need to hear more stories about students who are surviving high school to thrive at schools outside the “Ivy+ elite.” Everything we read and hear reinforces the idea that our high school exists to feed kids into Harvard or Stanford. You never read about Gunn grads who survived to thrive at a regional liberal arts college, a community college, a “2nd-tier” school, or even a state university. The definition of success has shrunk to a pinpoint, and all other students are rendered invisible.
Another reader agrees:
It drove me crazy, too, as if the only path to success is Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley, or UCLA. I think a companion piece to Rosin’s article should be an expose of all the kids who did everything “right” and still did not gain a place at their dream school. The truth is, the Ivies could fill their classes 10x over with students as equally qualified as the ones who gained admission.
So the real question is, why are we allowing our kids to put themselves through this kind of self-flagellation when the cards are so stacked against them? They could all get far more sleep and be far happier if they came to the realization that the cost to their health and well being simply isn’t worth it.
Another reader provides a passage from the farewell report of the Chairman of Harvard’s Admissions Committee, Wilbur Bender:
The student who ranks first in his class may be genuinely brilliant or he may be a compulsive worker or the instrument of domineering parents’ ambitions or a conformist or a self-centered careerist who has shrewdly calculated his teachers’ prejudices and expectations and discovered how to regurgitate efficiently what they want. Or he may have focused narrowly on grade-getting as compensation for his inadequacies in other areas, because he lacks other interests or talents or lacks passion and warmth or normal healthy instincts or is afraid of life.
The top high school student is often, frankly, a pretty dull and bloodless, or peculiar fellow. The adolescent with wide-ranging curiosity, and stubborn independence, with a vivid imagination and desire to explore fascinating bypaths, to follow his own interests, to contemplate, to read the unrequired books, the boy filled with sheer love of life and exuberance, may well seem to his teachers troublesome, undisciplined, a rebel, may not conform to their stereotype, and may not get the top grades and the highest rank in class. He may not even score at the highest level in the standard multiple choice admissions tests, which may well reward the glib, facile mind at the expense of the questioning, independent, or slower but more powerful, more subtle, and more interesting and original mind.
This reader writes along similar lines:
Moderately successful adult here. What you achieve in high school / where you go to college / what you do in college / what you do in the first year or two of your career has very little to do with what you will achieve in life.
My high school’s valedictorian has never really done anything career-wise. She went on to an average college, landed an average job, and now lives in an average house in an average suburb. The kid who graduated ninth in our class and got into Harvard seems to have a fairly rewarding career, but in terms of net worth, he has nothing on the kid who became a welder and used his earnings at 25 to invest in real estate. Personally, I graduated towards the bottom of my high school class, went to a mediocre state college, married well, went onto a top tier law school … and then proceeded to live off of my in-laws’ money, because after a few years of the rat race, my ambition was completely gone.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t worry too much. There are many, many paths to a happy, successful life, and they don’t all involve Stanford. Achievement wise, some people will peak at 18, some will peak at 22, some will peak at 40, and some will never actually achieve anything on their own accord, but will still have very nice lives.
We’ve heard from a lot of angry and hurt students and parents from Palo Alto’s high schools in response to Hanna’s piece. Here’s another local parent:
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 as Gunn or Paly, our school, too, regularly sends graduates to Stanford, UC Berkley, UCLA, as well as any number of Ivies and 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 marketing, including the ranking system of U.S. News and World Report, test prep for the SAT, and, yes, the fact that a third or more slots at public colleges are reserved for out-of-state students, making the competition for spots akin to gaining admission to private selective colleges. And it’s no wonder competition is so fierce:
The cost of attending UCLA vs. attending the University of Michigan, for example, is HALF for a resident of California. That’s a very motivating factor to put the pressure on one’s kid when the total four-year bill is $100K vs. $200K for an out-of-state public school, or even $240K for a private college. It’s the difference between having debilitating debt upon graduation or not.
But all that said, the bottom line is that parents have to get real. Gunn HS 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 each year for stress-related mental illness and any number of students are killing themselves each year.
What is the appeal? Put limits on your kids’ activities. Don’t allow them to take more than than one or two AP classes in a given year. And most of all, if your kid is up until 2 a.m. every night doing homework, something is amiss. Either they’ve got too much going on after school, or they’re taking too many honors/AP classes. High school kids should be in bed no later than 11 p.m. And you, Mom and Dad, can put the brakes on.
That post features a popular YouTube video from a Gunn student, Martha Cabot. She was also mentioned in Hanna’s piece:
Sitting in her bedroom in a T-shirt [the night after Cameron Lee’s suicide], with curls falling loose from her ponytail, she confirmed many parents’ worst fears about themselves. “The amount of stress on a student is ridiculous,” Martha said [in the video]. “Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements.” She was recording the video mostly for parents, she explained, because apparently it took a suicide to get adults to pay attention. “We’ll do just fine, even though we got a B‑minus on that chem test,” she said. “And no, I won’t join the debate team for you.”
Had parents really given their kids the idea that they had to perform? That their love had to be earned with A’s and Advanced Placement tests and trophies? They hadn’t meant to. Yet there, from one of their own kids, was the rebuke that in this community, no place or time or language existed that allowed kids to be vulnerable, much less broken, or even just to be: “We love our moms and we love our dads,” Martha said. “But calm down.”
While this article was better than most, it still suffers from the same
sensationalist problem as all the others:
- “The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools”—WRONG!
- “The Silicon Valley Suicides”—WRONG!
- “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?”—Partially Wrong.
This is NOT a Silicon Valley Problem, since it is not happening at any of the other private or public schools elsewhere in Silicon Valley
(including the even wealthier areas of Atherton, Los Altos Hills, or
Hillsborough). This is not even a problem of Palo Alto high schools, since it’s not happening at Palo Alto High School (only one of the suicides in the various clusters happened at Paly).
The various headlines should have, properly, read:
- “The Suicide Clusters at Gunn High School (in Palo Alto)”
- “The Gunn High School Suicides”
- “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves at Gunn High School in Palo Alto?”
It’s time for the articles to focus on Gunn so they have the motivation
to address the problem in a seriously introspective manner.
From a mother of two Gunn grads (’10 and ’14):
The article made me cry, several times. I felt so strongly that Hanna did not include the feelings of the parents and the community.
It is so painful to have to ask your children, “Did you hear about anything? Do you want to talk about what you heard? How do you feel about what happened?” over and over. It is so painful to realize that your child has to face their own mortality because they have known someone their own age who died. They cannot feel immortal, the way beautiful young people should feel, because they know that their friends die.
Overall, I feel Hanna did not get a handle on how hard this community has been trying. I feel a bit demonized, or at the very least that our community was depicted in a distinctly un-nuanced way.
I also resent that everyone talks about Palo Alto as if we are all wealthy. I know I am in the top one percent globally, but I am living on a salary, struggling to make college payments, and even with financial aid and loans, I’m solidly middle class. From the point of view of a long-time resident, and with due caution that I do not sound too much like a crotchety old lady, Palo Alto was an awesome place to grow up. We were one of the first in the nation to recycle, I rode horses, there were orchards, there were coffee houses with live music, seven movie theaters, and about the same number of book stores. It has changed a lot, but there are still many ordinary liberal, even hippy, middle-class, family-oriented people here.
I wish the article had mentioned the good work of the Challenge Success team, which has reached out and formed a team at Gunn to create a more balanced academic life. They do great, hopeful work.
I also want to share the short film that one of of my kid’s classmates made (Gunn class of 2012, between the clusters). It’s called Tracks. [CB note: A Vimeo commenter says of the film: “vulnerable, beautiful, and disturbing. Haunting images, heartrending acting, and a beautiful story.”]
Another critical email from the community:
I am an Asian Indian parent and my two children graduated from Gunn recently. As immigrant parents, we worked very very hard to give my children an education we did not have: an emphasis on the joy of learning (and less emphasis on grades and tests), creativity, balance between school and outside activities, and redefining what success means. We have been lifelong volunteers at PAUSD and I gave up a Silicon Valley career to be a full-time mom, to listen and support my children’s passion, to be there for them, and to help this community. I have lived in many communities, and I found this one in Palo Alto to be caring, honest, and open minded.
I knew some of the children who took their lives on the train track. I know some of the parents whose children suffered depression, acknowledged it and tried everything they could to find help. Every day I cross that train track and ask why. What could I have done? It is true of every parent here.
I agreed with some of the issues Hanna Rosin raised. But something she did not address: that one in seven kids between the ages of 13 and 18 in this country are depressed [CB note: Comparable stats here]. They don’t know how to get help and cannot afford help. There is a stigma about mental health, and our healthcare programs do not cover mental illness for the most part. The college admissions process and the high school structure is not conducive to the mental health needs of our young people. I am not convinced this is a Silicon Valley problem or a Palo Alto problem alone, or an Asian cultural problem or a problem with our medical establishment.
All I know is the factors for these suicides are complex and that this community is addressing it. 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 to have so many conversations between so many different ethnic, economic groups here in Palo Alto. The city is not all rich, successful, Asian, white or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
I urge Rosin to write an article as a followup, after she do more investigating, more talking to more people from the various members of this community on what has been done and the honesty with which so many of us in Palo Alto are facing this issue, the programs that have been put in place, the love and support that this community has given to each other. The article failed miserably in this regard. And Rosin’s comment, “Our hope is that the story will spur a useful discussion, among educators, mental health experts, and teenagers,” was arrogant, ignorant, not well researched, offensive, an insult to this community, and clearly shows your knowledge of what this community is, as a judgmental outsider.
From a reader who isn’t as hard on Hanna:
I am a parent of two daughters, one who graduated from Gunn High School this year, the other a sophomore currently. I am also a member of the school’s schedule committee, which adopted its new block format to assure that student well-being is placed on a par with academics.
The Atlantic and Hanna Rosin deserve credit for taking on this topic with serious purpose, thorough research, and even a certain humility about definitive conclusions, as well as for making the effort to add some “hard truths” to our understanding of tragedies that defy understanding. Yet it is unfortunate that the author of this extensive piece devoted barely a sentence or two to the adverse effects on students and parents of the overweening college admission industry, especially as Rosin correctly focuses on this issue and comments pointedly in her video interview [seen above].
In my own piece concerning the suicides published last June in The Huffington Post, I attempted to sum the matter up as follows:
Why colleges don’t make their admission standards more transparent is beyond reckoning, except to enable the reprehensible "selectivity" game. Collectively, they are willfully fostering undue stress with children as pawns, and should be ashamed of themselves. Annual disclosure of college admissions scoring templates and algorithms (which would not preclude exceptions) should be a requirement of law for Federal aid flow to any college. Establishing such a system would not be "too hard" for the colleges with Silicon Valley's help, given its leadership and expertise in big data analytics - some Stanford students are doing it already!
One more reader, who praises Hanna (as have many other parents via email):
For 15 years I taught English at Gunn High. In the classroom, along with my wonderful teenagers, I made it through 2009-2010, when six of their schoolmates were deciding to end their lives, and it turned me into a different (and better) teacher and changed me as a person forever.
For good journalism, one must be grateful, and that certainly applies here. Ms. Rosin’s piece is balanced, warm, thoughtful, graceful, humane. In her discussion of over-parenting, and in particular the insight that it doesn’t necessarily equate with feelings of closeness, I find Ms. Rosin right on target.
I believe she’s rather shied away from some of the cruelties of this town, at least as I have witnessed them: parents wanting their injured children to go out on the athletic field, a mother wanting her mortally ill daughter to nevertheless go sit for the SAT, a girl ignored and weeping in her school’s Main Office, a coach telling his team that suicide is the act of a coward, students angry at a deceased classmate for “ruining my senior year.” But I’m not sure that the callousness here is any worse than in human life anywhere.
And in general, Ms. Rosin’s focus is much more on parenting than on the way we run our high schools—and I guess this is as it should be, since, when all’s said and done, our families are the most decisive influences in our lives.
Gunn High has a current rate of cheating of 87 percent. Palo Alto High was recently discovered to have had a three-year, 20-student cheating ring that ushered at least some kids through the gates of prestigious colleges. Such massive academic fraud causes pervasive distrust and anxiety; the problem is of longstanding; our administrators, School Board, and parents collude in it by looking the other way. [CB note: More details on the cheating here.]
Previously, our high schools reported grades four times a year; now it is twelve—leaving teenagers no time to heal, breathe, recover from the hurt and emotional setbacks of adolescence. And studies show that 65 percent of high-schoolers, even when it’s against school rules, are on their cellphones during class—distracted from their teachers, their classmates, their studies.
A Palo Alto grassroots campaign, called Save the 2,008 (named for the number of faculty and students remaining at Gunn High after last fall’s suicides) has marshaled 400 signed supporters—parents, students, teachers, Stanford professors, physicians, attorneys, engineers, scientists, LMFTs, psychologists, a chief health strategist from Google—in a plea to school officials to undo these toxic school conditions.
Journalists are some of my heroes. They’re fighting an uphill fight—against a decline in reading and decline of financial resources. And it’s hard to get into public schools to observe. So I repeat: Ms. Rosin’s work is welcome and well-done.
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.
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 generation that grew up with Rebecca Black’s “Friday” isn’t just nostalgic for that novelty tune—it’s making music inspired by it.
Ten years ago, the most Googled name in the world belonged to a wide-smiling 13-year-old girl everyone seemed to be laughing at. She was Rebecca Black of “Friday,” the calendar-themed sing-along that reached megafame by being, in many people’s judgment, the worst song ever. Amid cheesy production by the ARK Music Factory—a now-defunct Southern California firm that Black’s mom had paid $4,000 to make the song—Black’s auto-tuned voice bleated about cereal, front seats, back seats, and “fun, fun, fun.” In the music video, which featured tweens riding around in a convertible, and on talk shows where hosts quizzed Black about why her song was so hated, she never seemed to drop her grin.
Reducing hours without reducing pay would reignite an essential but long-forgotten moral project: making American life less about work.
The 89 people who work at Buffer, a company that makes social-media management tools, are used to having an unconventional employer. Everyone’s salary, including the CEO’s, is public. All employees work remotely; their only office closed down six years ago. And as a perk, Buffer pays for any books employees want to buy for themselves.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that last year, when the pandemic obliterated countless workers’ work-life balance and mental health, Buffer responded in a way that few other companies did: It gave employees an extra day off each week, without reducing pay—an experiment that’s still running a year later. “It has been such a godsend,” Essence Muhammad, a customer-support agent at Buffer, told me.
There’s no way of knowing how bad things will get in the U.S. In a way, that’s a luxury.
This much is clear: The coronavirus is becoming more transmissible. Ever since the virus emerged in China, it has been gaining mutations that help it spread more easily among humans. The Alpha variant, first detected in the United Kingdom last year, is 50 percent more transmissible than the original version, and now the Delta variant, first detected in India, is at least 40 percent more transmissible than Alpha.
What’s less certain, however, is how the virus’s increased transmissibility will affect the pandemic in the United States. Alpha’s arrival prompted worries about a new surge in the spring, but one never came. The proportion of Alpha cases kept going up, but the total number of cases kept going down. People got vaccinated. Alpha became dominant in the U.S. Cases fell even further. The virus had become more biologically transmissible, but it wasn’t being transmitted to more people.
The Apple TV+ series Physical is a reminder that making people hate their body is a thriving pillar of American commerce.
This is supposed to be the season of unleashed, exuberant exhibitionism. Many of us have swaddled our pale bodies in Lycra and terry cloth for more than a year; the theory of Hot Vax Summer is that we’re long overdue to expose them to the cruel light of other people’s eyes. In the music video for “Solar Power,” Lorde basks on the beach in a lemon-yellow crop top, the symmetry of her rib cage its own work of art. “Forget all of the tears that you’ve cried; it’s over,” she sings, shooing away our literal and metaphorical winter of COVID-19. (Predictably, the outfit she wears—$615 plus tax!—sold out immediately.) I watched most of Physical—Apple TV+’s new series about a 1980s aerobics queen-in-waiting—with this in mind, idly running my hand over and over my unsculpted midriff, fighting the impulse to throw on a leotard and sweat joyfully along to “Space Age Love Song.” This is the conflict at the center of American consumerist fitness spectacle: Even when it’s at its most transparently questionable, the promise is almost impossible to resist.
Leagues are seeing the downside of treating vaccines as simply a matter of personal choice.
When the NBA announced Wednesday that Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul was being sidelined indefinitely under the league’s coronavirus-safety protocols, the next question was obvious: Had Paul been vaccinated?
For COVID-19 concerns to interrupt Paul’s brilliant playoff run seemed particularly cruel—not only because the widespread availability of vaccines has made transmission of the virus largely preventable, but also because the Suns had just secured a spot in the Western Conference finals. Even though Paul is one of the best NBA point guards ever, this week’s development was another unfortunate entry in his long history of medical problems during the playoffs.
The television analysts Matt Barnes and Jalen Rose, both of whom are former NBA players, soon reported that Paul had indeed been vaccinated. But all the discussion of his status raised another important question: Do fans even have the right to know, and do journalists have the right to ask, if a player has been vaccinated against COVID-19?
A common ideology underlies the practices of many ultra-wealthy people: The government can’t be trusted with money.
When ProPublica published its report last week on the tax profiles of 25 of the richest Americans, jaws dropped across the United States. How was it possible that plutocrats such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett could pay nothing in income taxes to the federal government? What sneaky sleights of pen, what subterfuge, what acts of turpitude could have led to this result?
The shock stems, in part, from a disturbing reality: Nowhere does ProPublica assert that these men cheated, lied, or did anything felonious to lower their tax burdens. The naked fact of the matter is that not a single one of the documented methods and practices that allowed these billionaires to so radically minimize their tax obligations was illegal.
People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning. Is reconciliation possible?
Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.
Why are many dating practices a throwback to an earlier era?
Heterosexual women of a progressive bent often say they want equal partnerships with men. But dating is a different story entirely. The women I interviewed for a research project and book expected men to ask for, plan, and pay for dates; initiate sex; confirm the exclusivity of a relationship; and propose marriage. After setting all of those precedents, these women then wanted a marriage in which they shared the financial responsibilities, housework, and child care relatively equally. Almost none of my interviewees saw these dating practices as a threat to their feminist credentials or to their desire for egalitarian marriages. But they were wrong.
As a feminist sociologist, I’ve long been interested in how gender influences our behavior in romantic relationships. I was aware of the research that showed greater gains in gender equality at work than at home. Curious to explore some of the reasons behind these numbers, I spent the past several years talking with people about their dating lives and what they wanted from their marriages and partnerships. The heterosexual and LGBTQ people I interviewed—more than 100 in total—were highly educated, professional-track young adults who lived in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. This was not a cross section of America, for certain, but I did expect to hear progressive views. Most wanted equal partnerships where they could share both financial and family responsibilities. Almost everyone I interviewed was quite vocal in their support of gender equality and didn’t shy away from the feminist label.
Of all the injuries we suffered, mine is the worst. My brain injury has shaken my confidence in my own personality, my own existence.
The worst things can happen on the most beautiful days. My family’s worst day was a perfect one in the summer of 2019. We picked my daughter up from camp and talked about where to go for lunch: the diner or the burger place. I don’t remember which we chose. What I do remember: being woken up, again and again, by doctors who insist on asking me the same questions—my name, where I am, what month it is—and telling me the same story, a story that I am sure is wrong.
“You were in a car accident,” they say. But this cannot be. We’re having lunch and then going on a hike. I had promised the think tank where I work that I’d call in to a 4 p.m. meeting.
“You are in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in New Hampshire.” Another ludicrous statement. I started the day in Vermont. Surely if I had crossed the river to New Hampshire I would know it.
The most famous Emancipation holiday is more necessary now than it has ever been.
Juneteenth has always been touched with irony. Although it is the most popular Emancipation Day holiday in the country, it marks neither the legal nor the de facto end of slavery in the country.
The lesser-known Jubilee on New Year’s Day more properly commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1863 executive order that technically freed enslaved people in the rebel states. Memorial Day—first celebrated by freedmen in April 1865—commemorates the end of that war and the lives lost fighting over the scourge of slavery. The end of slavery as it had been practiced came with the Thirteenth Amendment, which on December 6, 1865, officially ended the institution and freed the last few humans who remained in chattel bondage under its bloody regime.