The Silicon Valley Suicides

ryan melaugh (CC BY 2.0)

ryan melaugh (CC BY 2.0)

Hanna Rosin via The Atlantic:

Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?

A few students had gotten in early to take some photos dressed as Scooby-Doo characters, part of an annual volleyball-team tradition. Now one of them, Alyssa See-Tho, was waiting outside the choir room for first period to start. Slowly, classmates began to join her. Through the windows, they could spy the teachers packed in there. In the other classrooms of Henry M. Gunn High School, about 1,900 kids waited. After a few minutes the teachers filed out, each holding a sheet of paper, none talking. Alyssa took her seat inside. It was November 4, 2014, a few days after homecoming and maybe a month before college applications would start making everyone crazy. The teacher read a statement containing the words took his own life last night, and then a name, Cameron Lee. Alyssa’s first thought: Is there another Cameron Lee at our school?, because the one she knew was popular and athletic and seemingly unbothered by schoolwork, an avid practitioner of the annoying prank of turning people’s backpacks inside out.

Alex Gil got to school a little late that day and saw people crying in the hallways. The principal, Denise Herrmann, stopped him and told him, because she knew he was one of Cameron’s best friends, and he fell to his knees. He thought about a text Cameron had sent him the day before. Cameron had gone to tryouts for varsity basketball but hadn’t yet gotten his required physical, so he had asked whether Alex thought he could get in to see the doctor the next day. He must have sent the text only a few hours before he died.

In her creative-writing class later that day, Tarn Wilson asked how many people were friends with Cameron, and a third of the students raised a hand. She then asked how many had been in a class with him, and everyone’s hand went up. The kids were usually “silly and joyful,” she later said, but that period, they were “utterly and completely silent.”

That morning the school district’s superintendent, Glenn “Max” McGee, called Kim Diorio, the principal of the system’s other public high school, Palo Alto High, to warn her, “This is going to hit everyone really hard.” McGee was new to the district that year, but he’d known the history when he took the job. The 10-year suicide rate for the two high schools is between four and five times the national average. Starting in the spring of 2009 and stretching over nine months, three Gunn students, one incoming freshman, and one recent graduate had put themselves in front of an oncoming Caltrain. Another recent graduate had hung himself. While the intervening years had been quieter, they had not been comforting. School counselors remained “overwhelmed and overloaded” with an influx of kids considered high risk, says Roni Gillenson, who has helped oversee Gunn’s mental-health program since 2006. Twelve percent of Palo Alto high-school students surveyed in the 2013–14 school year reported having seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months.

In McGee’s third month on the job, about three weeks before Cameron’s death, a girl from a local private school had jumped off an overpass. Then, a day later, a kid who’d graduated from Gunn the year before, Quinn Gens, had killed himself on the tracks. Now it was not even Thanksgiving, and two students affiliated with Gunn were already dead.

Suicide clusters—defined as multiple deaths in close succession and proximity—feed on viral news, which feeds on social connections. McGee and the other administrators worried about vulnerable students reading too many details and overidentifying with Cameron. He had played basketball for years, so he knew people at both public high schools in town; his sister was in middle school; he seemed to have friends everywhere, and the grief was gathering momentum. Diorio had been the head of guidance at Palo Alto High (“Paly,” as it’s known in the community) in 2009 and 2010, during the last suicide cluster, but the big differences this time, she told me, were smartphones and social media. All day long, kids at Paly could get updates from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. By second period many already knew it was the Caltrain, again. That day, like every day, you could hear the train from most of the classrooms, passing every 20 minutes or so. That day, one student later told me, the warning whistle seemed like the cannon that goes off in The Hunger Games every time a kid dies.

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