The Atlantic published an article by Hanna Rosin entitled “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright futures killing themselves in Palo Alto?” Rosin paints a picture of a place of affluence, success, and high expectations. However, at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, the 10 year suicide rate is four to five times the national average. By March of 2014, 42 Gunn students had already been hospitalized or treated for “significant suicidal ideation,” since the start of the school year. In a survey conducted in the same year, 12 percent of Palo Alto high-school students reported having seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months.
What is happening that is pushing kids to their breaking point? While we can’t pin point the exact reason why anyone ends their own life because of the complexity of suicide, there have been theories surrounding the high-pressure academic atmosphere that Palo Alto exudes.
Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School and a school district student board member, wrote an article about her experiences as a student. She explains that as young as elementary school, children are either deemed “early” or “late” readers. While the “early” readers are labeled smart, the “late” readers are left feeling inadequate, and this constant cataloging follows them into high school.
“I like to think of this as the reason I lost my enthusiasm and confidence for math so early,” says Walworth. “How could I possibly feel intelligent when the class I was in was considered dumb?”
She describes the constant pressure to be in the advanced classes, participate in sports, school clubs, attend weekend SAT prep courses, obtain internships, and complete excessive amounts of homework, all while enduring the typical pressures of being a teenager. It is indeed exhausting and stressful. Walworth explains that this isn’t an issue of lack of coping skill, but merely an issue of too much to cope with.
In the late 1990’s, Suniya Luthar was an assistant professor in Yale’s psychiatry department. Luthar was doing research at a low-income, inner-city school in Connecticut. She wanted to find out whether misbehavior correlated more with poverty or with a stage of adolescents. Luthar needed a second school to use as a comparison and was connected with as upscale suburban school. What she found was shocking. The proportion of kids who smoked, drank, or used hard drugs was significantly higher in the suburban school, as was the rate of serious anxiety and depression. This anomaly started Luthar down a career-long track studying the vulnerabilities of students within what she calls “a culture of affluence.”
“We assume that because these kids have money and a good education, everything is fine,” Luthar says. “And in the long run, money and education will protect them, but in adolescence, the dangers posed by the culture of affluence can be quite potent.”
However, that doesn’t mean kids who come from an affluent backgrounds are more likely to kill themselves. Studies on youth suicide have generally turned up few differences among social and economic classes. This finding simply means that there are a lot of youth from all walks of life suffering.
In the United States, there are about five youth suicide clusters a year and Palo Alto is well into its second. Whatever the reasons are, something must be done to change the culture of perfection among this community.
Reaching out for help must begin to be viewed as strength, not as a weakness.
Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She has a background in journalism and public relations with a degree from The University of Nebraska at Omaha. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, Nebraska State Conference Planning Committee, she is a volunteer mentor with YES, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.