Teen suicides in Palo Alto

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I debated for a second about whether or not this is an appropriate place to post about this topic, but mental health is a very real and very serious part of one’s overall health that is too often swept underneath the rug. My heart broke as I heard news of the recent suicides of Gunn High School students – three students have taken their lives since last September, and there have been a total of nine deaths deemed suicides linked with the school since 2009. Many of the suicides took place at a nearby train crossing in town, and lately I’ve been seeing more uniformed guards patrolling each train stop, on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary.

Since the first wave of deaths shocked our town, I have been thinking hard about what we as a community can do. I grew up in Palo Alto and went to high school down the street from Gunn. I know that the academic rigor and pressure to succeed are intense in this neighborhood. I’ve been there. But I couldn’t fully grasp the circumstances around which these young people with bright futures saw no other way out. I ended up researching the deaths, interviewing Gunn students and writing and producing a news piece about the deaths and what actions were being taken to address the underlying problems. As a medical student, I founded the Asian American Wellness Project, a student group that trains Stanford undergrads to be mentors for local high school students, focusing on wellness and living a balanced life.

Six years later, we are still seeing these young adults commit suicide. Put plainly, I think the whole culture here has to change. We need to redefine our meaning of success beyond getting into Ivy League colleges and getting straight A’s. Maybe in Palo Alto all you see are the successes – the start up millionaires and the feeling that everyone around you is getting into a top school. There’s a whole world out there that doesn’t fit into this Palo Alto frame of mind. It’s okay to carve out your own non-traditional path. This culture shift starts with parents and teachers setting the standard at home and at school, and will trickle down into the students.

Another big problem is the stigmatization of mental health. Having counseling available is one thing, but students need to feel they can actually use those resources. After these tragedies, my hope is that the students and teachers at all schools can be especially encouraging and understanding of anyone going through a hard time who could benefit from counseling. Again, this is a culture shift that needs to start with conversations at home and reinforced at school.

It’s hard for me to drive by the train tracks and not be reminded of our losses. However, crossing those tracks also gives me hope that we can turn our attention to mental health and wellness and as a community, learn and grow to fill in the gaps.

Resources:

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts, please call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can also call 1-855-278-4204.

A list of school and community resources are also available on the school district’s Health Services page and the Counseling Services page.

A list of local mental health resources is also available here.

photo credit: Calla – particolare via photopin (license)

 

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