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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'I Struggled to Find a Voice and a Platform'

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.”