Why are America’s most privileged teens killing themselves?
WHEN the teen suicide toll hit five times the national average for the second time around, Palo Alto, finally, knew it had a problem.
Now, the powerful US Center for Disease Control (CDC) has sent a team into the one of America’s wealthiest suburbs to find out why it’s brightest, most privileged teens are killing themselves.
It’s the second so-called suicide cluster (defined by the CDC as ‘three or more suicides that occur closer in time and space than what would be considered normal for the community) to devastate the community in six years. And finally, the federal body has called ‘enough’.
On the surface, the kids of Palo Alto, in California’s famed Silicon Valley, have everything to live for.
They reside in one of the wealthiest, most educated areas in the country. Steve Jobs’ old house is part of the neighbourhood. The tech explosion means this is the place people want to live — to celebrate their success, or build more success. Graduate high school there, and Stanford, or another top university, is the next natural step.
But six teenagers died by their own hand between 2009 and 2010. And in 2014 and 2015, another eight teens were added to the tragic toll.
Across the entire Santa Clara Valley from 2010 to 2014, an average of 20 teens died by suicide every year.
It’s estimated the suicide rates at Palo Alto’s two public high schools — Henry M. Gunn High School and Palo Alto High School — in the past decade is four times the US national average.
Sadly, those figures cover only the teens who died.
Dig deeper and you find 12 per cent of high school students in Palo Alto contemplated taking their own lives in 2013-2014, and in one school alone, 42 were treated or hospitalised for ‘significant suicide ideation’ or suicidal thoughts — which can encompass everything from thinking about suicide to attempting it.
Fightback: Henry M. Gunn High School students stick Post-it notes with messages around their school after three Gunn students committed suicide. Picture: Tony Avelar/APSource:AP
WHY ARE THE KIDS OF SILICON VALLEY KILLING THEMSELVES?
Five CDC investigators are on the ground in Palo Alto, as part of an “Epi-Aid’ investigation of youth suicide to shed light on why the kids of Silicon Valley are killing themselves — and how the tragic phenomenon can be halted.
The team will also investigate suicide contagion — amid fears coverage of each incident raises the risk of further suicide.
It’s a welcome breakthrough for a community searching for answers and solutions.
Some believe stress on students to achieve top marks — positions at the two schools are sought after, and the education on offer is top notch — and enter college at lofty levels is to blame.
Arizona State University professor Suinya Kyuthar has made a career-long study of the vulnerabilities of students within what she calls a “culture of affluence”.
“We assume that because [these kids] have money and a good education, everything is fine,” Prof Luthar told The Atlantic magazine’s Hanna Rosin, who conducted an exhaustive investigation for a cover story called The Silicon Valley Suicides recently.
One of the two major causes of distress, Prof Luthar continued, was the “pressure to excel at multiple academic and extra-curricular pursuits”.
The result is, she believes, kids who don’t meet high standards of academic success feel ‘flawed’.
But so far, there is little consensus, and the community has turned to finding its own ways of fighting back.
In 2014, the city’s school board voted to fund two fulltime licensed therapists for each high school, and advises students to limit themselves to two top-level classes each semester.
Gunn High School principal Denise Herrmann, has been to three funerals for students since taking on the job a year-and-a-half ago, and has started multiple programs to help stressed out students cope.
Show of support: Yoni Alon, Esther Han and Joyce Liu, students at Henry M. Gunn High School pose for a photo in 2009. The three created a student-run support group ROCK, also known as ‘Reach Out. Care. Know.’ Picture: Tony Avelar/APSource:AP
HOW THE COMMUNITY IS FIGHTING BACK
Schools start their days later, so that students can get more sleep. At Gunn, students created their own support group — ROCK.
New fencing has been erected around the railway tracks where, tragically, four teenagers took their lives in 2014 and 2015. Counselling services have been expanded.
But students are also trying to help themselves.
Like Palo Alto seniors Andrew Baer and Christian Leong, who shared their stories and those of their fellow-students by creating their own documentary, Unmasked, in which teens relay their struggles with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and their attempts to self-medicate as they talked about the pressures of academic life.
For Mr Baer, learning on March 9, 2015 that his classmate Qingyao ‘Byron’ Zhu was the third of four teens to die by suicide on the CalTrain tracks was enough.
The teachers gave students time in class to talk or write about their grief. Someone read a poem. Mr Baer texted his best mate, Christian Leong, picked up a camera. By that afternoon the pair was filming Unmasked.
Until that day in March, Mr Leong said, “I didn’t even think that kind of death was even possible for someone our age”.
For Mr Baer, it was a way to open a real conversation about what was going on.
“The whole nature of suicide clusters we see is when one person does it, other people may consider it as an option more seriously, which is really frightening,” he told ABC News in the US.
“We were trying to take off the happy, ‘everything’s OK’ mask that our community has and really just talk about the deep problems that we’re going through.”
“I can’t even figure myself out, how on earth can I expect anyone else to,” is the plaintive line from one student who appears in Unmasked.
Here’s hoping understanding comes before another teen becomes a statistic.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis or suicide prevention support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au/gethelp.