In the past seven years, Palo Alto has experienced two suicide clusters, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “three or more suicides in close proximity in regards to time and space.”
The first cluster stretched for nine months, beginning in spring of 2009. Four Gunn High School students and recent graduates, along with two other local teens, died by suicide during this time. In the second cluster, spanning from October 2014 to March 2015, four more Palo Alto Unified School district students and alumni lost their lives by suicide. And this April in Palo Alto, a 19-year-old Gunn graduate’s death was ruled a suicide as well.
This year, the clusters have motivated the CDC to investigate Palo Alto for risk factors of suicide, similarly to how they would investigate viral outbreaks.
The suicide clusters prompted much grief and reflection in the Palo Alto community, including many at Stanford – from Gunn and Palo Alto High School (Paly) alumni to professors whose children attend school in the district to educators and experts who worry about the area’s pressure-cooker culture of academic achievement. The clusters have also attracted attention nationwide, drawing many responses of concern about the Palo Alto school environment and student stress.
School administration, school boards, parents, students and Stanford have all been part of a community response that has implemented programs to improve student health and well-being. The combination of their efforts has led to some visible changes in the school communities. But some wonder how effective these changes have been, and those close to or knowledgeable of the local suicide issue agree that more steps must be taken to truly shift student mindsets.
Ken Dauber, parent of five and Palo Alto School Board member, and his wife Michele Dauber, Frederick I. Richman Professor of Law at Stanford, founded We Can Do Better Palo Alto in response to the first cluster. Modeled after Project Safety Net, a local network whose goal is to create a “safety net” for youth through community efforts, the organization aims to change the high-pressure culture in Palo Alto schools through efforts from the school board, school administration and students. Ken Dauber says that he and his wife were concerned that the school district was “paying less attention than it should to issues of student stress and wellbeing.”
Dauber explained that the initiative targets schools rather than the community at large.
“It is much easier to change the practices in the schools than it is to make changes in the attitudes of an entire community of people,” he said.
“Students are vulnerable to the idea that they are not good enough and that they need to present a face to the group that has everything under control,” Dauber explained. “There are different ways to address that. One is making sure that students in our schools really are successful. Another is to de-stigmatize admitting that you are not perfect, even admitting that you need help.”
We Can Do Better hopes to implement both strategies. The group has sought incremental change in the district’s policies on homework, scheduling, student guidance counseling and curriculum in order to create a healthier environment in which students can excel academically while also feeling comfortable enough to address personal struggles.
Students also took initiative in response to the first cluster. At Gunn, the student government created a Wellness Coordinator Position in order to make mental health a student body priority. They formed the peer advisory group ROCK (“Reach Out, Care, Know”), which focuses on eliminating the stigma around mental health and providing support to students.
The Gunn student newspaper started running a column called “Changing the Narrative” that normalizes the struggles of students and staff.
The schools themselves also responded. They organized wellness classes to address stress management. The Gunn administration created and publicized multiple student and faculty panels openly discussing the issues of mental health and teen suicide, and started a photo blog expressing school pride in response to the deaths.
In one of its most concrete actions, the school district removed Zero Period, a block of the school day starting at 7:20 a.m., from the daily schedule in an effort to reduce students’ stress. Zero period was an optional way for students to fit in an extra class, or start and end their days earlier.
Dauber explained that such an early start is not consistent with the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He and Steven Adelsheim, director of Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing and clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, both believe that the delayed start benefits student health.
However, Michael “Minku” Lee ’19, a Gunn alumni and Stanford freshman, found the change immaterial. He explained that the removal of Zero Period was an example of “school administration handling [the suicide clusters] a lot differently than people thought they would.” He felt the schedule change did not affect school culture.
“A lot of people viewed the elimination as just finding excuses,” Lee said. “Taking that option away raised a lot of eyebrows.”
Lee also believes that his high school failed to address the prevalence of cheating in the Gunn student body. He says that the school’s competitive culture has led students to use any means, including cheating, to be academically successful. Lee felt that “that point didn’t really get across” to the administration as they evaluated ways to deal with the suicide clusters.
The cheating, Lee explained, was just one manifestation of the overall culture of “duck syndrome” at Gunn, a phenomenon often associated with Stanford: Everyone appears to be gliding effortlessly along the surface, but is actually paddling frantically beneath the water to stay afloat. Lee felt that the school’s culture was very much “everyone out for themselves,” and that students were even less open about their struggles at Gunn than they are at Stanford.
Dauber, however, feels that the school district has effectively increased its focus on student health and wellbeing since the first cluster, which occurred before Lee was enrolled at Gunn. There are now set limits on homework time, and the implementation of block scheduling reduces daily workloads and the need for multitasking by having fewer classes meet per day, for longer chunks of time.
But “the implementations [of the homework limits] are seriously lacking,” Dauber said.
Dauber acknowledges that the Stanford psychiatry department has played a large role in helping the district. Adelsheim said that Stanford programs such as CAPS and the Bridge Peer Counseling Center are working to spread awareness of just “how pervasive” mental health issues are. In response to the first cluster, the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing worked with Paly and Gunn to implement Project Safety Net; Adelsheim is on the project’s leadership team.
Still, Dauber recalled a common phrase he has heard: “El Camino is the ‘widest street in America.’” On campus this notion manifests itself in the “Stanford bubble,” the impression that the University community is isolated from the outside world. Dauber believes there are many more untapped opportunities for close collaboration between the local community and the University.
According to Dauber, Stanford should better communicate to prospective students that “things like numbers of AP classes by themselves aren’t the important metrics for understanding that you are an attractive candidate in the school.” Instead, he said, Stanford should focus on opening a dialogue on the importance of well-rounded students.
Dauber also feels that the schools themselves still need to take steps toward a more advisory-based model for student counseling and toward more conscientious scheduling of tests and assignments to reduce work pile-ups.
Additionally, Adelsheim thinks Stanford should extend the model of resources such as CAPS and the Bridge to local high schools.
Some believe Stanford is part of the broad problem of student stress. Lee said that Stanford’s proximity to Gunn and Paly contributed to their unhealthy, competitive environments.
“Stanford does have a big influence,” he said. “It over-hypes the competitiveness.”
However, Lee feels that, all things considered, the University is not responsible for the suicide clusters, and academic environment is only one part of a complex issue.
“A lot of the suicides aren’t from a pure academic pressure standpoint,” he said. “A lot of the students did suffer from depression previously. There were other factors.”
Lee thinks that more resources should be devoted to expanding mental health education at Paly and Gunn. At present, Gunn has what Lee called “a more toned-down version of the Bridge.” Lee said the school district should expand this program, in addition to adding a counseling system modeled after Stanford’s CAPS.
But Lee says that the broader culture at Gunn also needs to change to break down persistent stigmas surrounding mental health.
“A lot of people viewed [mental health issues] as almost like weakness or brushed it off,” Lee said.
Dauber is “very optimistic” that school-related pressures leading to the clusters can be eliminated – and that these changes will reverberate beyond high school campuses.
“If we make these changes in the schools then the culture around academic achievement in Silicon Valley will change,” he said.
Contact Caroline Kimmel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated or reckless
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide, but may not be what causes a suicide.
WHAT TO DO
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
- Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
THE NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE 800-273-TALK (8255)