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.
Carole Cadwalladr may be the most consequential journalist of her age. But is her activism undermining her reporting?
LONDON—Carole Cadwalladr is different from the stereotypical British journalist. She is earnest where many are regarded as cynical. Fractious while others are chummy. An activist freelancer whose rivals inhabit berths with the big media players.
To her fans, Cadwalladr is an icon—a brave, irreverent, truth-seeking missile, exposing a nexus of corruption that is subverting our body politic, not only the Woodward and Bernstein of Brexit, but also its Emmeline Pankhurst, tirelessly campaigning for what she sees as a just outcome. But to her opponents, she is something else: a hysterical middle-aged conspiracy theorist, someone who pushed her stories beyond what the facts supported and who was willing to legally threaten journalists she was working with to get her way—or, in the words of the BBC journalist Andrew Neil, a “mad cat woman.”
The results yielded no clear path to a governing coalition, but represented a rejection of two dangerous ideas.
Israel’s second election of 2019 managed to produce both high drama and anticlimax. The top-line result: There is no clear winner. Neither the right-wing bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nor the center-left bloc led by former military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, commanded a majority of the 120 seats in the 22nd Knesset. But there was still a loser of sorts: Netanyahu.
The one thing that was clear, following the election, was that the results signal a dramatic shift in policy. Israel had stepped all the way to the brink on two fundamental issues, and it has now taken a half step back. These results scuttle Netanyahu’s plans to officially apply Israeli law to parts of the West Bank, annexing the Jordan Valley, and to curtail the Israeli Supreme Court’s powers in order to secure himself immunity from prosecution on corruption charges. Both issues would have had serious ramifications, the former for the possibility of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the future, and the latter for the health of Israeli democracy. Tuesday’s results will not produce peace nor resolve Israel’s internal challenges, but they stave off those prospects, at least for the moment.
A lot rides on how parents present the activity to their kids.
They can be identified by their independent-bookstore tote bags, their “Book Lover” mugs, or—most reliably—by the bound, printed stacks of paper they flip through on their lap. They are, for lack of a more specific term, readers.
Joining their tribe seems simple enough: Get a book, read it, and voilà! You’re a reader—no tote bag necessary. But behind that simple process is a question of motivation—of why some people grow up to derive great pleasure from reading, while others don’t. That why is consequential—leisure reading has been linked to a range of good academic and professional outcomes—as well as difficult to fully explain. But a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.
Long-hidden documents show the school’s blueprint for slowing integration during the civil-rights era.
In the summer of 1955, administrators at the University of Texas at Austin had a problem: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, handed down the previous year, required educational institutions to integrate their classrooms. But the regents overseeing the state university system’s flagship campus, the old alumni who formed the donor base, and the segregationist political forces that pulled the purse strings were all determined to find ways to keep African Americans from stepping foot on campus.
UT had no conspicuous blocking-the-schoolhouse-door moment. A series of documents in the UT archives, many of them marked confidential, suggests that administration officials took a subtler approach: They adopted a selective admissions policy based around standardized testing, which they knew would suppress the number of African American students they were forced to admit.
After five years of being her caregiver, I couldn’t bear the emotional or financial costs alone any longer.
I was married to my wife for 30 years. In 2012 she was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. It’s a hereditary fatal brain disorder with no cure or treatments. It slowly took her away mentally and physically. She was 47 at the time.
For five years I was her sole caregiver, washing her, dressing her, feeding her, etc. In 2017, I could go on no longer and had to place her in a long-term care facility. I was burnt out. Shortly after, I filed for divorce because the cost of her care was bankrupting me. If she was single her care was covered. I had no choice.
Since then I have met another lady with whom I am now in a serious relationship. I am 55 years old. My ex is not capable of understanding cognitively, so she does not know. My family says they support me. My ex’s family doesn’t. I felt I needed to move on in life, but I still visit my ex daily and ensure her needs are met. My son is an adult professional who seems to be struggling with my situation. The woman in my life is great and supports me fully in this, and also ensures I keep in contact with my ex. Did I do right by moving on?
Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.
To be a parent is to be compromised.You pledge allegiance to justice for all, you swear that private attachments can rhyme with the public good, but when the choice comes down to your child or an abstraction—even the well-being of children you don’t know—you’ll betray your principles to the fierce unfairness of love. Then life takes revenge on the conceit that your child’s fate lies in your hands at all. The organized pathologies of adults, including yours—sometimes known as politics—find a way to infect the world of children. Only they can save themselves.
Our son underwent his first school interview soon after turning 2. He’d been using words for about a year. An admissions officer at a private school with brand-new, beautifully and sustainably constructed art and dance studios gave him a piece of paper and crayons. While she questioned my wife and me about our work, our son drew a yellow circle over a green squiggle.
A whistle-blower complaint raises the possibility that President Trump has betrayed the duties of his office.
On the 20th of July 1787, Gouverneur Morris rose inside the stiflingly hot Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, to explain why he had changed his mind and now favored including a power of impeachment in the constitutional text.
Until that point, he and others had feared that an impeachment power would leave the president too dependent on Congress. He had thought that the prospect of reelection defeat would offer a sufficient control on presidential wrongdoing.
But the arguments of other delegates had convinced him—and particularly an example from then-recent British history. A century earlier, Great Britain had been ruled by a king named Charles II. King Charles was the son of Charles I, the king whose head was cut off during the English Civil War. Restored to the throne, Charles II learned to tiptoe carefully around his dangerous subjects. But there was a problem: Charles wanted more money than Parliament willingly offered him. His solution? He reached out to an old friend and patron: the king of France, Louis XIV.
Though the continent has lost 3 billion birds since 1970, those losses are hard to glean because it’s the commonest species that have been hit hardest.
In the early afternoon of September 1, 1914, Martha the passenger pigeon, the last of her kind in the world, passed away, and her entire species disappeared with her. But before that instant of extinction, there had been decades of decline, as hunters killed what was once the most common bird in the world. Billions of passenger pigeons became millions, thousands, and then hundreds, until eventually one became none. Few people took note of this decline as it happened: There still seemed to be a lot of pigeons, and their abundance obscured their downfall.
History is now repeating itself—across the entire avian world.
A new study, which analyzed decades of data on North American birds, estimates that the continent’s bird populations have fallen by 29 percent since 1970. That’s almost 3 billion fewer individuals than there used to be, five decades ago. “It’s a staggering result,” says Kenneth Rosenberg from Cornell University and the American Bird Conservancy, who led the analysis.
Republicans have tolerated plenty of foreign-policy moves by Trump that they would never have let his predecessor get away with. Will that continue with Iran?
For a man who once characterized Donald Trump as a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” worthy of being ISIS’s “man of the year,” Lindsey Graham took a rather tame jab at the president recently. The Republican senator, now one of Trump’s top allies in Congress, argued on Tuesday that the Iranian government had detected “weakness” in the president’s “measured” decision in June to call off retaliatory military strikes against Iran, which emboldened the Iranians to execute “an act of war” by attacking oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
But it was just enough to stir up @realDonaldTrump. Fast and furious came the counter-tweet: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”
The second known visitor to our cosmic neighborhood from another star is making quite an entrance.
No one knows where it came from, but it’s here now. And the chase is on.
Astronomers around the world are monitoring an interstellar comet hurtling through the solar system, known for the moment as C/2019 Q4. It’s the second time in less than two years that they’ve seen an object from another star swing through our cosmic neighborhood. The first time around, the discovery kicked off a worldwide sprint to inspect the object before it got away. It was mysterious enough that some astronomers even began to consider whether it was dispatched by an advanced alien civilization.
This second interstellar object was spotted in late August by Gennady Borisov, an amateur astronomer in Crimea. Borisov has a reputation for catching never-before-seen comets with his telescopes, but they’re from around here; like everything else in the solar system—the planets, the moons, a sea of asteroids—they trace an orbit around the sun. And over the past few weeks, it’s become very clear that this comet does not.