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Top Silicon Valley High Schools Respond To Rising Suicide Rate


Robotics teams, top-notch theater programs, a flock of seniors off to elite universities each year - Palo Alto Senior High School and Henry M. Gunn High School in Silicon Valley are the kinds of schools parents dream about. They're also schools where suicide is unusually common. The suicide rate over the last 10 years is several times the national average. Hanna Rosin reported on the community and the questions it's been struggling with in a new piece in The Atlantic magazine. She started that article describing the aftermath of a suicide that happened last November. The student's name was Cameron Lee.

HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: He was what would be considered a dangerous suicide in terms of contagion and other people following his lead because he was very well-known. Lots of people would've heard about it very quickly. We live in an age where all the kids had cell phones. So it was quite scary for the school community.

Also, this was the second suicide cluster this particular community has experienced - a cluster being three or more kids. So they had one in 2009, 2010 and now, not that many years later, a second one. And so for all those reasons, it really echoed hard in the community.

CORNISH: You used a word there - contagion - which I've heard when people talk about just violence generally. What does it mean in this context?

ROSIN: Contagion is a real thing. Suicide contagion among young people has been well-studied. It means that you have a patient A who almost serves as an example for people who are thinking about suicide. So it's very scary for a school community when one child who's popular or well-known among the kids kills himself. And then they kind of see themselves in his example.

CORNISH: And you talk about that struggle with the school, also with parents because this is a community, as you've said, that had experienced a series of suicides before. And so they already sort of had, literally, a, quote, unquote, "tool kit" of, like, what we should do and how should we react. Did that help?

ROSIN: It really helped. I mean, this is such a sensitive subject. It's very delicate what you can and can't do. There were rules for the media. You know, they asked the media not to read suicide notes, not to talk in too great detail about the details of the suicide so the details don't lodge themselves in any other kids' minds. So I think the school community was facing the same kind of thing, you know? What can we do? What should we not do to be totally respectful to this kid's family and yet contain the problem?

CORNISH: Was there anything you learned about this community where this school is that gave you any idea as to the cause or even kind of the thinking about maybe what was leading to this?

ROSIN: So this is where it gets tricky because I think suicide is a real black box. Like, trying to figure out the reasons for any individual kid's suicide will lead you nowhere. On the other hand, because this was the second time this had happened, the community could no longer really say to itself, oh, this is an aberration. They really had to stop and take a look at who they were and what they were doing.

And these are the children of people who work and live in Silicon Valley. So in some sense, this is the center of the universe. It's where the future happens. And so they really had to say, oh, are we putting too much pressure on our kids? That's the first thing that came up. Is this a place where we're overemphasizing getting into Stanford, you know, taking advanced math classes - all these kinds of things that are just way too much for a teenager, particularly a teenager in distress, to handle.

CORNISH: Can you list, like, two or three sort of theories people had at the time about the "kind of kid," quote, unquote, or what happened that you sort of knocked down in the course of reporting?

ROSIN: Yeah, so, you know, maybe it's a kid who's a cutter or has completely obvious signs of distress. Maybe it's a kid who is marginalized in some way, or maybe it's a kid who's really, really struggling in school. And it really turned out that none of those things were true for pretty much any of these kids. Another theory, a very sensitive theory, is, because there's a high Asian population at Gunn and Palo Alto high school, maybe it's these, you know, tiger moms who are driving their kids into the ground.

CORNISH: And this is the idea that Asian parents who have, like, extra emphasis on education put undue stress on their children.

ROSIN: Yeah, if you, you know - if you don't get all As in chemistry and calculus, than we're going to kick you out of the house. Like, you want it to be those kind of parents so you can distance yourself, whereas it's, like, every kind of parent.

CORNISH: So definitely not the case (laughter).

ROSIN: Definitely not the case on any of these grounds. I mean, I think if there's any larger cultural explanation in that community, it's that a lot of the teachers said there wasn't a space to fail or be sad or get off the track for a minute. And I have an example of a girl who survived an attempt. And she talks about that. She just didn't know how to say, I'm in trouble; I feel sad; I can't keep up with this. So this was the only way she thought of - was to attempt a suicide.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, back at Gunn High School, did anything change? Did you get a sense that parents or kids were sort of rethinking these expectations or even how they talk about achievement?

ROSIN: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of - you couldn't not change (laughter) if you were there and living through the situation. So they passed policies about homework which I'm sure they'll take more seriously.

CORNISH: Policies meaning less of it or...

ROSIN: Less of it. There used to be stigma around mental health, and I feel like that is completely gone in the community. There are signs everywhere pointing kids to where they should go if they feel depressed or if they feel anxious, like, that really, clearly tells them, please seek help.

CORNISH: Hanna Rosin, thank you so much for talking with us.

ROSIN: My pleasure.

CORNISH: Hanna Rosin - her piece is in the new issue of The Atlantic. It's called "The Silicon Valley Suicides," and she wrote that as senior editor of the magazine. As of yesterday, she has a new title. Hanna is co-host of INVISIBILIA, NPR's show about the intangible forces that shape human behavior. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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