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.

Show 6 Newer Notes

Suicide and Immortality, Cont'd

A reader responds to the earlier one who invoked the role religion can play in helping people cope with suicidal thoughts:

Your reader’s certainty that there is something after death, and that it is apparently self-evidently better, strikes me as the same kind of sadness that he or she sees in those who don’t share such certainty. If this is all there is, can’t that be a motivation to make the most of whatever life on Earth we have?

I feel sorry for the reader, who can apparently only find joy in life through a belief in something after it. (If the reader feels a touch of condescension from my words, consider that their words may have provided the same.) If someone can’t find meaning in their work, their family and friends, or the life that surrounds us, I have to wonder if they simply lack the imagination necessary to revel in the wonder of the world.

Another reader asks of the religious one, “Would not the knowledge of an afterlife make this life utterly meaningless? For what would 60 or 80 years be against eternity?” Another reader offers alternative ways to cope with suicidal thoughts:

Religion can be inspiring, but it can also be self righteous navel gazing—and it’s no panacea for those who are trying to find meaning in this world and life. I speak from long experience; I’ve been a diagnosed depressive since I was a teenager and I’m nearly 50 now. Daily, I wrestle with the existential “Why am I here/why do I bother?” line of thinking that threatens to drag me down into the abyss.

How to resist?

The luminaries of Silicon Valley are increasingly interested in bringing everlasting life to the human race. Chief among them is Google Ventures President Bill Maris, who, with the help of futurist Ray Kurzweil (seen in the video above), is leading a $425 million initiative to slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life to 500 years. In that context, a reader brings religion into the long and ongoing discussion of teen suicide sparked by Hanna’s cover story:

What I’m about to write comes from a place of love. I hurt for the families of the young people who have taken their own lives, and for the families of those who are suffering so much that they contemplate it. The dear 15-year-old girl whose brother took his life, the one who organized his memorial service, described the potential in her community by saying that people there “are working on inventions that will slow aging and probably one day stop death.”

Stopping death? This is the thinking of people who feel the emptiness of believing that death is the end. I am not condemning them, not at all. But if one has no faith in God, and no belief that He has a life for us after this one is over, then life seems pretty sad. What happens if you get everything you want in life? Popularity. Good grades. A well-paying job. Emptiness. If there is nothing greater, it’s impossible not to fast-forward to the end game.

Disagree with that reasoning? Drop us an email. Update: Many readers respond here.

This college consultant in the Bay Area, Melissa Chen, is trying to help:

Rosin’s article quotes a recent op-ed from a Palo Alto High junior writing for Palo Alto Online:

We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick... Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?

[...] The narrow and insanely competitive path to college admissions, I believe, is all wrong. Firstly because there are easier routes to success. And secondly because I think taking the competitive road makes admissions to an elite college harder.

Yes, according to a reader and educator who went to Harvard graduate school:

There’s obviously much wrong with how Americans educate their children. But when Hanna Rosin asks, “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?”—as a former teacher there who’s now a college counselor elsewhere—I’d identify the chief culprit: the refusal of elite universities to make their actual admissions priorities and practices transparent.

The desperate frenzy to rack up AP credits, perfect grades, awards, volunteer experiences, and recommendations—calling to mind a hamster madly spinning on a wheel—has a very simple antecedent, which is that colleges such as Yale, Duke, and Stanford play a coy game to entice applicants who have virtually no chance of acceptance, urging them to believe that running ever harder, “accomplishing” more and more, might help. Is it any wonder that some kids opt off the wheel?  

This futile, soul-crushing chase has especially severe consequences in places like Palo Alto, which unlike old-money enclaves in other parts of the country, have large numbers of educated immigrants from places whose school systems are based upon fixed criteria and meritocratic ranking, who are relatively unsophisticated about how the system in America—skewed to favor insiders—works.  

What can those most responsible for this madness do to rectify the problem?

A reader writes:

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:

Hanna’s investigation into the Silicon Valley suicides elicited a ton of passionate response via the hello@ address—and now the comments section. This reader is a bit harsh:

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.

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:

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:

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,, and 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Here’s a PDF containing a “Comprehensive Suicide Prevention Toolkit for Schools.”