Four students in the Palo Alto school district have committed suicide since last October, none recently, and Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic is the latest to cover the events. As she points out, the tragedies are known as a "suicide cluster," of which there are about five a year among teens in America. It's also the second in recent years in Palo Alto because in 2009 and 2010 five local teenagers killed themselves, some jumping in front of Caltrain. "The air shrieks," she poeticizes the train in the article's opening line, "and life stops."
Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas Of Depression, wrote of Robin Williams' suicide in the New Yorker that "When the mass media report suicide stories, they almost always provide a 'reason,' which seems to bring logic to the illogic of self-termination." Try asking someone why they killed themselves, he seems to suggest.
San Francisco magazine's article on the subject by Diana Kapp appeared in June and was reprinted by the Chronicle. Like Rosins' it's set in the "quiet, manicured streets" of "wealthy, educated" Palo Alto. For Rosin and others, a series of tragedies have become an epidemic in an unexpected place whose cause is to be located, mostly, in a culture of high achievement and pressure.
At Henry M. Gunn High School principal Denise Herrmann told Kapp that 52 students were "hospitalized or treated for 'significant suicide ideation between August and April of this (last) school year." But the institution doesn't want to be known as a suicide school, as some, especially those in the media, have labelled it.
In the Atlantic's December issue, Rosin hypothesizes that at Gunn and its ilk, "[students] had internalized their parents’ priorities, and though they felt conflicted about them, they didn’t quite know how to break free." But later, she adds that "admitting we don’t entirely know why teenagers kill themselves isn’t an invitation to do nothing to prevent it from happening. 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." Still, the pause could have been longer.
Of the suicide-prevention experts that "thankfully, or maybe eerily, the school district was stocked," Rosin writes that "In training, they learned that one key to heading off copycats was not romanticizing the death, so they struggled to hit just the right tone. They had to avoid turning Cameron [Lee, one victim of suicide central to the SF Magazine and Atlantic accounts] into a hero or a martyr without insulting his memory or his devastated family. They had to make a space for the kids to grieve without letting wreath-and-teddy-bear memorials take over the campus."
For her part, Kapp wrote in San Francisco magazine of a "hush-up" wherein "The Palo Alto school district and community, terrified that media coverage — or even public utterance of the word 'suicide' would spread the contagion, implemented an unofficial gag order... the fear was too great — nobody would talk." Could that fear have been or a sensationalized account? And was it well-founded?
Perhaps as something of a corrective, Vice wrote in September that while "in response to the most recent tragedies, the national media and school administration turned the deaths into a referendum on the schools' culture of achievement... Gunn students themselves have led their own efforts to have their voices heard and valued."
"For them, as much as the achievement culture needs to be reconsidered, it's the support the academic community provides that needs improvement. Students are asking whether their schools, which have led the nation in academic accolades, can turn themselves into models of mental health care."
In an interview with NPR, Gunn junior Carolyn Walworth described the scene at her school, which reminded me of the one I went to not very long ago, also in the shadow of a prestigious university, also with competitive students. "You just hear people talking about grades constantly, and SAT scores — all of that stuff.... You feel this sense that you're not as good as everyone else or you're not good enough for whatever reason — because you can't get into a certain college or just because your test scores aren't as high as someone else's. You kind of feel you have to be a perfect person."
What was frustrating about my own experience, I think I see in hindsight, was that I wasn't being encouraged to be a person at all — just perfect, which is not a thing and certainly not a thing one pursues for ones' own sake. If I'm disdainful of the attempts to cover the suicides in the Atlantic and elsewhere, it's because they feel, to me, dehumanizing and exploitative in the same way — all like lines out of "To An Athlete Dying Young" mashed up with vague social critique.
When students at Gunn were basically prescribed a free period and a cap on AP classes by parents and administration, they rejected it. "This is America," one student said. We should be able to choose how rigorous our workload is." But if the problem was a school simply overworking its students, then shouldn't they have been relieved? Do they not know what's best for them, and are they simply trapped in a dangerous mindset?
Maybe. But maybe also what students want is not to be informed of what's best for them. Maybe what they need is adults who listen to them, respect the opinions they express, and most of all, never tell them what to want, but help them discover what it is that might be. Anyway, that's what I would have liked, I think.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.