Succeed Or Die Trying: A Look At Palo Alto's Suicide Epidemic

Kate Brown
There's a suicide epidemic in Palo Alto, and the school districts are approaching it all wrong: the culture surrounding success is to blame, not lack of yoga.

Succeed Or Die Trying

Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that they would begin investigating a series of suicides in Palo Alto, a city where the adolescent suicide rate is five times the national average, after four Palo Alto teens took their own lives in 2014 and 2015, just a few years after six committed suicide in 2009 and 2010.

This is known as a suicide cluster, or defined as multiple deaths in close succession and proximity, and it’s a real problem in Palo Alto.

It’s a horrific and devastating story that seems to endlessly repeat itself: students between the ages of 10 and 19 are committing suicide, the majority of which threw themselves in front of the Caltrain that runs near one of the local high schools.

The government, however, is a slow-moving machine.

Despite the fact that lives are quite literally at stake, the process of the investigation takes months in order to completely turn around some sort of solution to the epidemic.

Claudia King, the Chief Communications Officer of City of Palo Alto, spoke with and explained that although the preliminary investigation is done, it’s far from over: “It will won’t be until about Fall when they come with a thorough report of their findings… their intent during the investigation is to simply gather information.”

That means that students will not experience any changes in the school, the community, or see any real shifts until potentially next year.

So what has been done so far?

In a futile and depressing attempt to fix the problem, schools offered yoga classes and “stress relieving” exercises before class in order to help students cope with the culture of stress that hangs over the school like a ghost. In addition, a taller fence was put in place around the train tracks.

quick Band

These quick Band-Aid fixes (that many students seem unaware of) for a serious problem show the ugly attitude with which school districts and the community treats suicide and their floundering teens.

Mercury News reports, “Students and other community members have already taken numerous steps to support teens to discourage them from harming themselves. Schools are starting later so that students can get more sleep. Gunn High School students created a student support group. New fencing rims the Caltrain tracks. The school district and city have offered sessions on parenting and mental health issues. And counseling services have been expanded.”

But it is not enough. In fact, Carolyn Walworth, a former student at Palo Alto High School who wrote a powerful op-ed last year describing the crippling and debilitating stress that students experience at her school, talked with and explained that there is little to no change happening.

“People in our town have definitely been upset and shaken by the suicides, but a few weeks after each one happens, people, and especially leaders in our school district, act like everything is okay, almost as if the suicides had never even happened, not really caring to acknowledge that there is a problem or do much toward finding a solution the problem. Hence, it’s reassuring that the CDC sees that this is not just a random occurrence and that it must actually be addressed.”

Suicide Epidemic

She went on to say that she does like the school’s new yoga classes, as well as the mindfulness and meditation activities before class, but, she says, “these efforts are far too minimal.”

“I think the schools are either unsure how or just unwilling to attempt to change the environment of academic competition/stress that exists. Essentially, I believe that the schools’ only approach to trying to solve the problem is to teach students how to de-stress a bit and deal with negative emotions. This, however, does not in any way attempt to dissolve or really address the severity of the stress culture that exists. Such techniques are helpful for dealing with stress to a certain extent, but when high levels of stress, competition, and sleep deprivation are the norm for students on a daily basis, doing yoga isn’t really going to do much to help a student that’s immensely struggling. Many of my friends also feel that the schools are not doing much to solve the problem and that the schools are also largely ignoring student input. “

She also noted that she didn’t notice the later start times, but she did agree that it would be a better solution than simple drop-in yoga classes.

“I think that starting school a full hour to two hours later, or at least giving students the option to start their classes later and end school later in the day, would be highly beneficial to students who are sleep deprived."

Class room

This sentiment seems to be shared among the teachers as well.

Lesa Zuehlke, a former music teacher at Palo Alto High, blames the culture surrounding success at the school and the incredible pressure that students are under to perform:

“The pressure students were under was incredibly unhealthy. They would have about four hours of homework on top of the extracurricular activities that they were pressured to do. Their parents would have them enrolled in so many different things—music lessons, plays, sports—that many of them wouldn’t get home until after dinnertime with loads of homework that they still needed to do—they would just be exhausted.”

Zuehlke also described students coming into her office in tears, unable to figure out how to accomplish everything that they had to do.

“Kids who were at a really high level of education—the ones that were enrolled in just about every possible extracurricular activity—have such a high risk for depression. They just simply don’t have the time to do everything that is expected of them.”

Given this side of things, it becomes crystal clear that the issue isn’t about making students tougher so that they can handle the stressors that the school puts on them. It’s about stopping this horrific “busy is good” culture that encourages students to sign up for every activity, get everything perfect, and do it all on little to no sleep.

Yoga classes do absolutely nothing to help that—and it’s about time the entire Palo Alto community realizes that.

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