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By Chandrama Anderson

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About this blog: I am a LMFT specializing in couples counseling and have lived in and around Palo Alto since 1969. I worked in high-tech at Apple, Stanford University, and in Silicon Valley for 15 years before becoming a therapist. My background i...  (More)

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A Glimpse into local HS Suicide

Uploaded: Mar 27, 2015
Note: This is only one view, from one Palo Alto HS student.

My son is a senior this year. We spend every Thursday afternoon together, and have been doing so for the past five years. We talk about a lot of topics from school and homework, money, to college planning to his perspective on the world, sociology, friends, and personal stuff (I'm keeping his confidentiality), my life and work, and more. We play a lot of Canasta, go to movies, for walks, eat good food (he's turned from a picky eater into a foodie), and generally hang out. He got me started playing 2048, but I haven't gotten to 8192 yet.

Each week as we spend time together I am mostly just glad to be together, and I also notice his mood (how can I not, as a therapist). I don't probe, though.

Ever since he was little, we've talked about things, I've told him what I considered age appropriate and encouraged him to ask questions (we had a lot of deaths in our family when he was young). As he got older, he said less about personal things, as is normal and healthy as kids are preparing to separate and launch from their parents. In the last couple of years, he talks to me more again.

Each time there is a high school student suicide in Palo Alto I check in with him very directly about how he's doing, does he have suicidal thoughts (no), did he know the student (one recently, yes), would he talk to me if he was having trouble, does he know where the resources are if he doesn't want to talk to me, etc.

Since he knew one of the students, I asked him why he thought it happened, and he thought that wasn't the right focus; it was better to respect the family's privacy and mourn in the way each person needed to.

However, this past week he told me why he thinks the Palo Alto kids might be committing suicide: It's not just the pressure, school and homework load. His view is that they watch their parents have a comfortable lifestyle, and see all the things their parents have done, and wonder if they could ever do nearly as much as their parents have.
I asked if he felt this way, and he said no.

After a pause he said that I had done a lot, but that I was in Tech [before becoming a marriage counselor and there were a lot of opportunities. Like what, I asked. You taught the Internet to the [Founder of the "For Dummies" guy. You set up the Stanford Alumni email. You proposed the original "Look Inside" feature to Amazon. And other things.

I let all that sink in for a while. I told him he has a lot of good ideas, too. I was in a time and place to see and imagine what might be coming, and I put myself out there.

After we played pool for a while and were driving back, I said, You know all those things you listed as my successes? To me, my biggest success is you. Having you. The kind of a man you are turning out to be.

I don't know why these students are killing themselves. It is horrific. This is just one glimpse into one high school student's mind.

To those of you in despair: Please know there are other options. Get help. People want to help, despite how you might see it.

Parents, spend individual time with your kids. They may resist it. Mine did. But I am stubborn. Now it's not even a question between us. We look forward to it.

Comments

 +   16 people like this
Posted by Parent, a resident of JLS Middle School,
on Mar 27, 2015 at 1:12 pm

My Dad was an immigrant with a lot to overcome, he achieved in one generation what usually takes more. We didn't have a lot of money, yet he always made a point of taking every Sunday afternoon off and taking one of us kids, individually, out to have a hamburger at the local Shoney's. We used to fight over whose turn it was. We loved having that individual time with our Dad.

Even families that have an only child, it's so important to have one-on-one time with kids. And for adults to have time alone, too.

Thank you for sharing your experience. I want to ask that you also consider how a system than constantly grades kids in every little interaction against each other could be the reason kids can't imagine doing well in life, and have such a narrow idea of what success is. They don't get to DO things in school, they are put on a really narrow track and constantly scored by outsiders for how they are doing against each other. No wonder they can't imagine achieving anything in life.

Rather than teaching kids that dreaming big is one step to suicide ideation, we should provide an education that teaches kids that life is beautiful, and varied, and that everyone has gifts to the world.

When kids are in class competing with each other in contrived circumstances over and over again, they get an idea of who is "good" and who is "less" which will be most of the kids. But when people get out of school and have to do real things in life, they begin to appreciate the contributions and value of the many different gifts people have in life, gifts and talents that are often not appreciated in school but that are essential in a well-functioning society or even to solve difficult problems in every field. Why aren't we giving kids a chance to DO many, varied, different things while they are still home and safe? Our system of education is antiquated, the equivalent of corporal punishment in child rearing. It's not necessary to get the outcome we desire, and it does a lot of harm if we are willing to look.

Human beings have an innate need to be useful, to be competent. Our system is teaching most of our kids except for a few that they aren't. Small wonder they feel a lot of stress in looking to the future. We should be providing opportunities for kids to DO things in the present.

While communicating with them and loving them, and taking time to just be with them as you have shared. Thank you for that.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Sharon, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Mar 27, 2015 at 1:16 pm

You are to be commended for the insight you are showing for your son. More parents may put some time aside and do what you are doing.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Parent, a resident of JLS Middle School,
on Mar 27, 2015 at 1:18 pm

PS

Speaking of life is beautiful --

That's a difficult film to watch, but it's one to contemplate. When I first watched it, pre-child, I was irritated by the guy's trying to protect the kid from the hard reality of the circumstances in the camp, because I figured the child would end up hurt far worse when reality dawned. After having a child, I realized, the guy in the movie had protected the child in a way that was not just a way to protect him psychologically from the reality of the camps, but to also save his life because kids will not just do what you tell them, kids that young cannot appreciate the danger no matter how serious the consequences. Impressing the horror on them, as the realities did to the other children they showed, would not have saved his life.

The aspects of our system creating a lot of anguish, self-doubt, and low self-esteem in our kids are often justified to prepare them for the realities of life. I think that's absolutely the wrong way to look at it, and is like someone justifying hitting children to somehow benefit them later.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Marc Vincenti, a resident of Gunn High School,
on Mar 28, 2015 at 9:13 pm

You're invited to sign:

"AN OPEN LETTER TO THE SCHOOL BOARD AND SUPERINTENDENT"

It will occupy a full page in next Friday's "Weekly."

To read it and decide whether you'd like to sign, visit: www.savethe2008.com.

The window to sign closes at noon, the day after tomorrow.


 +   13 people like this
Posted by stop, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 30, 2015 at 5:05 pm

There is zero empirical evidence that having successful parents causes suicidal ideation or suicide attempts. There is a wealth of empirical evidence that sleep deprivation is closely and causally associated with suicide attempts (and ideation, and severe depression).

It is not mysterious why we have had so many suicides here. We have a sleep deprived population of teens. There is media and social network coverage of suicide. There is a lethal means of harm running through the center of town. There are vastly inadequate resources for counseling even for those who seek it, and not enough seek it.

Sleep is the number one low-hanging fruit that can be addressed.

1. Eliminate zero period and bring start times into line with physician recommendations. That is job one. If you can't do that, turn out the lights and go home.

2. Control workload.

3. Educate parents and students about the way that screen time interferes with sleep (this is way down the list from start time and workload).

4. Get rid of every teacher and admin who refuses to do 1-3.

5. Address drug and alcohol abuse (highly associated with suicide), rampant in PA, almost totally unaddressed here.

Providing counseling is great, but it is also the equivalent of handing out bandaids to people you just shot. Sure I would like a band-aid but I would much rather you hadn't shot me and I am not sure a band-aid is going to do the trick.

Please people stop supplying crackpot theories of suicide that have no empirical support. Now people will read this and say, well she's a licensed whatever and she says it is that kids feel intimidated by parental success. Maybe they do, but there is NO evidence that causes suicide.

I'm sure you mean well but this should be taken down. It does more harm than good to present theories of suicide without any support in the scientific literature.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Neighbor, a resident of another community,
on Mar 30, 2015 at 9:19 pm

Dear "stop,"
You make an important point about sleep deprivation, but you are way off base with the tone of your argument and the suggestion that this is an unsupported theory of suicide.

This post is a beautiful example of a dialogue between a parent and child, and I hope to be able to have such a connection when I have kids. She shares what her son thinks and identifies it as such--obviously he is not an expert on the psychological literature, and readers should realize this.

But the theory presented is NOT "affluence causes suicide": it is that kids are worried they will not meet their own high expectations and/or their parents' high expectations; they see their parents as benchmarks, and to live in Palo Alto their parents probably have succeeded scholastically and financially, and the more competition they feel in high school, the more they worry they will not meet those same goals. Indeed, this is a specific form of the type of crisis that often triggers for suicidal feelings: a person is particularly vulnerable when a setback or failure threatens one's sense of self or goals.

I appreciate your point that sleep deprivation and drug and alcohol use are powerful contributors to suicides.

Keep in mind also, in the fight against sleep deprivation, it's not just the school. A lot of kids facing college admissions will pile the work on themselves (possibly with help from their parents). If the school gives sane amounts of homework, the kids might get involved in more outside activities to distinguish themselves in the competitive race for college admissions. It might help to change some of the perceptions around how important it is to get into a particular school. A friend of mine is also studying how mindfulness training can affect kids' academic and social outcomes; perhaps more explicitly teaching these coping skills would help, as well.

Finally, food for thought: what are the benefits and disadvantages of going to a "good" high school? My local high school neighbored Lynbrook but was not academically notable; dozens of the top students from my middle school finagled their way into "better" public schools (using grandparents' addresses, etc.) or private schools. At my high school, there was room at the top of the class and there was not a competitive atmosphere; I ended up at an Ivy League school, and then Stanford for grad school; most of my friends whose parents were well-educated and affluent (or driven immigrants) (face it: those are the largest correlates of college success--and that's a lot of why Palo Alto schools appear "good") also ended up with good tech jobs and/or grad school. Parents, you know your children: if they will not thrive in an ultra-competitive school atmosphere, perhaps rethink paying through the nose to live in Palo Alto.

Chandrama, thanks for writing and sharing this!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by lesliefunk, a resident of another community,
on Mar 31, 2015 at 9:24 am

lesliefunk is a registered user.

Thank you for writing this important piece. You are illustrating a view from your son's eyes, a current student in the high school experience. Last night I posted my own "inside view," specifically from my first year teaching at a high school with demographics similar to Palo Alto schools. I have never written a piece with so many direct quotes, all from students in my chemistry classes during the first few weeks of school. I kept a journal, and that is how I was able to quote directly. My point was to provide a snap shot of the stereotypes that were readily utilized and the wide generalizations accepted by the students. Based on the comments on my post, it was easy to dismiss my piece and accuse me of a lack of critical thinking ability and blanket acceptance of racial stereotypes. That was the point I was making, that teenagers in high school are living with these generalizations, exaggerations and stereotypes every day. Do you remember high school? Stereotyping is the basis of cliques, the very way you are accepted or rejected. Most likely as the parent, you have no idea how your kid is categorized at school, how they fight against or accept the judgments of their peers. What I know for sure is that building your connection to your teen is the best way to strengthen their self worth and resilience, making it easier for them to navigate their teenage years and move on to young adulthood. Odds are (yes, statistically speaking) your own teen feels you don't listen to them and actively avoids talking to you. Unless as a parent you are working at carving out space and time together, just like the author demonstrates above, you really don't know anything about what your child's life is like at school. Let go of the "scientifically proven" platform we all love to stand upon. Our children could care less about the research that parents want to believe "proves" stuff to us as parents. Listen to your kid and how they feel as an individual that spends most of their waking hours in the overly generalized, stereotyping environment called high school.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by stop, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 31, 2015 at 9:55 am

"Let go of the "scientifically proven" platform we all love to stand upon. "

I cannot believe that this statement was made by a science teacher. That is just sad and a bit frightening.

When a licensed therapist puts forth a theory of suicide in a public forum, whether or not it comes "out of the mouth" of her child or not, it is coming from her into the public domain. People will give it credibility because she chose to repeat it and promulgate it. Her license implies a responsibility and duty not to publicize false information about an important topic like suicide.

Your "son's" opinion is nice for the dinner table. When you, as a health care provider, publish it you give it validity. You don't say "of course as we all know, this doesn't cause suicide any more than bathing causes witches to curse you or leeches cure smallpox." But instead you didn't say that. You said "wow this is such important food for thought, wrapped in a humblebrag about your "accomplishments" in tech. This is not appropriate in the middle of a contagion. Misinformation, however well intended is bad.

And I would prefer not to abandon science, racist science teacher.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by lesliefunk, a resident of another community,
on Mar 31, 2015 at 11:56 am

lesliefunk is a registered user.

In response to "stop"

Hmmm, don't see where I suggest, "abandoning science" in my comment above. How well does research explain the multiple suicides since 2009 in Palo Alto? Statistically it is an anomaly, since California has a lower teen suicide rate than other states for the teenage age group. Since the first cluster in Palo Alto of high school student suicides in 2009-2010 parents, educators and community members have called for change. Reductions in stress and schoolwork, increases in sleep and down time have been recommended; yet another clustering of suicides has occurred in Palo Alto. Let's hear your explanation "stop," and while you are at it, what is your scientifically based solution?
I am quite sure that the parents of the teens who chose death by train would give anything to ask their son or daughter their opinion on why there have been multiple suicides at their school. Not because their answer is scientifically valid, but because any insight into the thoughts or fears of their student may help to save the life of another child.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by pogo, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Mar 31, 2015 at 12:05 pm

pogo is a registered user.

I don't think you have to look further than the links that have been provided BY THE STUDENTS AT PALY AND GUNN regarding the pressure they feel to excel academically. I recall one recent video where a young woman talked about having to take multiple "AP" classes as well as piano and Mandarin lessons after school. The pressure she felt to get all "A's" was nothing short of intense.

I don't think those schedules and demands came out of thin air.

Apparently some students are just fine with that intensity and some are not. But if a parent is unable to tell the difference, they may have a catastrophic, tragic result.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by stop, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 31, 2015 at 12:58 pm

Sleep deprivation has been implicated as a critical variable having enormous explanatory power in explaining suicide attempts, suicidality, and major depression.

Palo Alto has many factors causing sleep deprivation that are directly related to educational practices in our schools.

In addition we have a highly publicized contagion.

We have a lethal means running right through the center of town with basically unrestricted access.

Unless and until we put student sleep front and center as a guiding and organizing principle in our students' lives we will continue to experience this.

[Portion removed.]


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Another dad, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 31, 2015 at 2:29 pm

I fully agree with the tone of "Stop's" comments.

Stop is pointing out that, we need to stop the wishy-washy debate. We have a emergency in our school. Kids are dying. Dead with a capital "D". We need immediate and strong action, not another 4 years of endless delay, equivocation, and debate by school officials. [Portion removed.]

Palo Alto pediatricians have already published a letter which, in clear terms, shows that sleep, stress and homework need to be fixed. This letter is now the most reliable guide to the problem. It should be taken as "legally binding".

If the PAUSD continues to delay, then they ARE from that point on, liable for any further suicides.

Maybe a 50-million dollar emotional abuse lawsuit directed at PAUSD is the only way to STOP THE ENDLESS FOOTDRAGGING and get real action.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Mar 31, 2015 at 6:21 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

Another Dad:

PAUSD drags their feet because that is what the majority of parents in the district want. The majority of parents are driven to drive their children to "succeed." Top grades, top schools, top jobs, etc. Until these parents stop demanding these ridiculous standards from their children it will not change. The school district doesn't exist in a vacuum. Do you think teachers want to grade and review all of the excessive homework they assign? Do you think they would welcome a lower work load? I think the answer is obvious.

Parents need to stop putting insane demands on their children if they want this to stop. I know those attacking the messenger here don't want to accept responsibility for their own unrealistic expectations, but that's where the problem lies. And has for quite some time.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Mar 31, 2015 at 9:57 pm

I was amused by @stop's first request:
"Eliminate zero period ... If you can't do that, turn out the lights and go home."

Without electricity, everyone would get up at dawn and get to bed at a decent hour.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by GG, a resident of Downtown North,
on Apr 1, 2015 at 9:32 am

I am really surprised that neither the article author nor any of the comments actually contained the one thing a teenager needs to hear - That he/she is loved unconditionally. And that we all make mistakes, and we all have failures, but that is what makes us learn. And that not being perfect in all is OK. Just that.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Roxy, a resident of Community Center,
on Apr 1, 2015 at 12:30 pm

A small comfort that could help: therapy dogs.


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