Reporter's Notebook

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 The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

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What School Reforms Can Help Prevent Suicide?

Hanna approvingly forwarded me this email from Nicholas Lera, a teacher in the Menlo Park City School District, which is adjacent to Palo Alto:

In the video attached to Hanna Rosin’s recent article on suicides in the Palo Alto area, she mentioned a lack of a counter-culture. I think a small group of teachers at my school, Hillview Middle, is truly making a shift away from the traditional model of teaching and toward a paradigm that focuses on learning, curiosity, and collaboration. We are prototyping classroom management systems, assessment practices, project design practices, curriculum mapping processes, and all kinds of other teacher-speak things. Some of the particular practices include:

Yet another distinct voice from the Palo Alto community writes in, a “longtime leader of a free, open-to-the-public Adult ADHD discussion group”:

Thanks to Hanna Rosin for her sensitively written story. When I saw her byline, I knew the piece would not be sensationalized. I live here in Silicon Valley, and I’m very familiar with this phenomenon of academic pressure and teen suicide.

One factor left out of the equation: ADHD. In the parents and the children. ADHD is one of the most inherited traits, almost right up there with height. Most people do not realize the risk for suicide among people with unrecognized or poorly managed ADHD. And here in the Bay Area, we draw these “stimulation seeking” folks from all over the world. Even though many people in this “coveted” school district are educated, sophisticated, and well-heeled, their ignorance about ADHD is astounding.

A clinical psychologist in Palo Alto recommends some reading on the subject:

The still unsurpassed professionally authored book about the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD is Lawrence Diller’s Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill. Diller has no ax to grind and doesn’t hesitate to prescribe stimulant medication when he believes it’s appropriate. But realizing that the “ADHD phenomenon” is extraordinarily complex, he refuses to overgeneralize, insisting that each patient is unique.

A reader in Lakewood, Colorado, shares her story:

I can’t help but share my own family experience: when our youngest daughter started to have anxiety symptoms in 8th grade, the mismanagement of her mental health crisis by the principal (interestingly enough, she was the principal of another school during a year of three suicides, and she let her own anxiety over the experience lead her response to our daughter’s problem), and how our daughter was finally diagnosed with inattentive ADHD and dyslexia.

A reader writes:

I guess your thread (that just came to my attention) has been going a long time. Perhaps my response is still of interest. I read Hanna Rosin’s article on the Silicon Valley Suicides with great interest. Until very recently, I lived just a few miles north of Palo Alto. My beloved daughter, a recent Stanford graduate, took her own life in 2002 as a result of an adverse reaction to an SSRI antidepressant.

Jeremy Lin was a stressed out student at Paly:

Charlotte Hornets point guard Jeremy Lin opened up to his fans in a long and heartfelt Facebook post last week that addressed his experiences dealing with professional and academic pressure, as well as suicides in his high school. Lin wrote that his reflections were prompted by the cover of this month’s Atlantic magazine, “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” a report of how expectations on high school students in the tech mecca could drive them to the brink of a dangerous — and sometimes fatal — depression.

Lin as a freshman sat next to a classmate who committed suicide, as did one of his friends the following year. From his Facebook post:

The pressure to succeed in high school is all too familiar to me. I distinctly remember being a freshman in high school, overwhelmed by the belief that my GPA over the next four years would make or break my life. My daily thought process was that every homework assignment, every project, every test could be the difference. The difference between a great college and a mediocre college. The difference between success and failure. The difference between happiness and misery.

That passage reminds me of one of the emails still sitting in our inbox, from a current senior at a high school “situated in the district of St. Louis with the highest median annual income.”

She continues:

Anything less than perfect is inexcusable. And of course it’s overwhelming. I starting seeing a therapist my sophomore year.

Great news this week for the Palo Alto community, as covered by various outlets including ABC News, whose new Nightline segment is seen above:

Following the two clusters of youth suicides in Palo Alto in recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have sent a five-person team to conduct an epidemiological assessment, the San Jose Mercury News reports.

More from the Mercury News:

The assessment will survey the extent of the health problem and track trends, as well as identify risk and protective factors, in coming up with recommendations for prevention. [...] Students and other community members have already taken numerous steps to support teens to discourage them from harming themselves. Schools are starting later so that students can get more sleep. Gunn High School students created a student support group. New fencing rims the Caltrain tracks. The school district and city have offered sessions on parenting and mental health issues. And counseling services have been expanded.

The news from the CDC provides a good opportunity to air a few more emails we received from members of the Palo Alto community (our full discussion thread is here):

I am a 2012 Paly graduate, currently studying at Washington University in St. Louis. I’ve read Hanna Rosin’s “The Silicon Valley Suicides” four times now, but it feels like a hundred. The story is honest and true, and Rosin provides a clear overview of what has happened in Palo Alto, but it offers little that is new, at least not for someone who lived it. Rosin’s insights into Suniya Luthar’s research and the parallels between high achieving and underachieving inner-city and affluent kids are interesting and welcome, but ultimately the article provides a bird’s eye view of a community that deserves much more than that.

Here’s more from another reader, Jeremy Neff:

I grew up in Palo Alto, down the street from where the Blanchards live. I graduated from Gunn in 2012 and now I am a senior at George Washington University. Like everyone who went to Gunn when I did, I have powerful memories and emotions pertaining to the suicides of my peers. Below is my personal experience with suicide and a few current thoughts I have on the matter.