Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Delving Into Teen Suicide
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A collection of reader stories and debate sparked by Hanna Rosin’s The Silicon Valley Suicides.” Join the thread via hello@theatlantic.com. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

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Dissents From Palo Alto: The Parents

Hanna explains the research behind her December cover story


Earlier we ran many critical emails from current and recent students of Palo Alto’s two high schools, which served as the focal point of Hanna’s new piece on teen suicide. Now from a “concerned parent” in the community:

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.

Photo emailed by a parent in Palo Alto: “one of the post-its left on kids’ cars in the parking lot of Gunn on November 6th, 2014,” two days after the school learned of Cameron Lee’s suicide.


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

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

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 It was no secret that Harry had been dealing with depression and was apparently withdrawn leading up to his death.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

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

This reader can:

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

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

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

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

Another Gunn grad (‘13):

(trigger warning: suicide)

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

A reader writes:

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.

Brian L. Frank


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.

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: hello@theatlantic.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.”