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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.