HEALTHY LIVING
02/17/2016 11:59 am ET | Updated Jan 04, 2017

U.S. Health Officials Are Finally Paying Attention To Palo Alto School Suicides

The CDC wants to get to the bottom of two separate "suicide clusters" that have rocked a Silicon Valley high school.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is launching an investigation at Palo Alto's elite Henry M. Gunn High School after two separate clusters of suicide struck the community.

A team of epidemiologic assistance specialists -- experts in suicide prevention -- arrived in the area this week, the CDC told The Huffington Post.

"The focus of this [investigation] is fatal and non-fatal suicidal behaviors among youth in Santa Clara County during the years of 2008 through 2015," the CDC said. "CDC has supported previous epi-aids focused on youth suicide prevention. The field visit will include reviewing existing data from multiple sources, and meeting with local community organizations."

The school witnessed a first "suicide cluster" -- what the CDC calls several suicides that occur in close succession -- between 2009 and 2010.

Five students or recent graduates from the school died by suicide between May 2009 and January 2010 by jumping in front of the Caltrain commuter train, according to a report from the Palo Alto Unified School District. A sixth hanged himself during this period, The Atlantic reported.

Four more teens, some of whom were Gunn High School students, also died by suicide in what's called an "echo cluster," or secondary cluster, between 2014 and 2015.

Twelve percent of high school students in Palo Alto surveyed in the 2013–14 school year reported having "seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months," according to The Atlantic, and 42 Gunn students were hospitalized for having suicidal thoughts in the first part of the 2015-2016 academic year.

Gunn, which is highly ranked and consistently sends kids to top colleges like Stanford, is actively looking for ways to minimize these occurrences.

"While we already have considerable prevention efforts in place including active monitoring of at-risk students, extensive counseling, our student Reach Out, Care, and Know organization, homework monitoring, and professional development efforts with teachers, we have plans to do more in the areas that directly link to student social emotional health," Superintendent Max McGee said to parents last year.

Gunn principal Denise Herrmann is also figuring out ways to minimize stress in students' academic lives. She reorganized class schedules so that students attend fewer classes per day, she told ABC News, and is making sure the school offers techniques to reduce stress, like yoga and one-on-one counseling. 

NBA star Jeremy Lin even responded to the disturbing suicide news shaking his hometown in an emotional Facebook post. A classmate and a friend of his died by suicide while he was a student at Palo Alto High School, he wrote. Lin, too, often experienced the pressures that the rigorous system places on high-performing students. 

"I realized that even though there was pressure to be great, I had a personal choice not to define myself by my success and accomplishments. I learned through my brother, my pastor and my friends that my identity and my worth were in more than my grades," he wrote.

Suicide contagion among teens and young adults isn't a problem that afflicts Silicon Valley exclusively. The CDC has also investigated incidents in two counties in Delaware, as well as in Fairfax, Virginia, where it found that 72 percent of youth suicides exhibited previous mental health problems.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

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