CDC releases preliminary findings on Palo Alto suicide clusters

July 21, 2016, 1:00 a.m.

In light of the recent suicides of several Palo Alto teens, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began an epidemiological study in February 2016 that investigated previous youth suicide clusters. Last week, the CDC released preliminary findings of their study, which revealed that mental health problems, recent crises and problems at school were major factors in the suicides of the 232 youths throughout Santa Clara County the CDC investigated.

The CDC’s research revealed that 46 percent of victims had a mental health problem at the time. The most common mental health problems were depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Of the 232 cases studied, 53.7 percent had experienced a major crisis in the last two weeks. Male youths were found to be much less likely to report mental health problems or seek help and had a higher suicide rate than female youths.

Palo Alto has a teen suicide rate more than four times the national average. In the last seven years, Palo Alto has seen 10 teen deaths — six in a cluster during the 2008-09 school year and four in 2014-15. Several of these adolescents took their own lives on the Caltrain tracks near the high schools.

Suicide clusters are defined by the CDC as “three or more suicides in close proximity in regards to time and space.” The first suicide cluster in Palo Alto took place in the spring of 2009 with the deaths of four students affiliated with Gunn High School and two other local teens. The next cluster took place between October 2014 and March 2015, during which four more Palo Alto Unified School District students took their own lives.

The suicides caused students, parents, teachers, school administrators and Stanford to examine the Palo Alto community and its reputation of being a high-pressure area for academic achievement. A community response was developed to address the apparent causes of the suicides in the first cluster: parental pressure and academic stress. Projects, such as “We Can Do Better Palo Alto” were initiated to change the culture of Palo Alto and more programs were being introduced at schools to improve dialogue about mental health and reduce overall stress.

There were also movements to remove “zero period” at local high schools, an optional class period that begins at 7:20 a.m., before normal classes. Although class was initially removed, it was reinstated after outcry from students that extra limitations were not the solution to stress. Overall, the success of the programs is unclear.

As a result, the Santa Clara County Health Department requested that the CDC investigate Palo Alto’s teen suicides on behalf of the Palo Alto School District. Five members of the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted the study. In February, they came to Palo Alto to consult organizations that worked with youth mental health and suicide prevention and to study county-wide data of 232 suicides from 2003 to 2015.

The CDC found that high school students who had considered suicide were found to have many traits in common; they were much more likely to have missed school in the last month, experienced bullying, used alcohol or drugs in the past, engaged in binge drinking recently or to have identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

The CDC’s report is still incomplete, and its findings may be subject to change as the research continues. However, it does recommend broad steps to prevent future suicide clusters. The report urges those who live or work with youth to be familiar with signs of mental distress. Youths should be “encouraging help-seeking behavior, and ensuring access to quality care.” It also recommends focused outreach to male youths and increased efforts to prevent bullying. Additionally, it mentions the importance of having students develop trusted relationships with teachers or adults in order to make them feel more comfortable discussing a suicidal crisis.

The final report will also include analysis of youth suicide trends, the accuracy and role of media coverage and increased input from members in the community. This report, although preliminary, does provide a basis of facts and recommendations for the community to look to in the continued battle against youth suicide in the county and leads Santa Clara County one step closer to the goal of ending its stigma as a suicide-prone area.

Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal is urged to call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor.


Contact Ishika Chawla at ishikachawla2000 ‘at’ and Lucille Njoo at ponigalnew ‘at’

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