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Recovering From Suicide in Palo Alto: A Work In Progress

06/02/2015 08:35 am ET | Updated May 28, 2016

In its June 2015 edition, San Francisco Magazine published a lengthy article entitled:"Why Are Palo Alto Kids Killing Themselves?" It was quickly re-published in SFGate, and also nationally in Real Clear Politics and The Daily Beast.

As provocatively as the headline promises, the article dives deeply into student, parental and administrative reactions, inactions and false starts in response to the initial 2009 and more recent suicide clusters in 2014-15. Most involved students stepping in the path of commuter trains near grade crossings on main routes to the city's high schools. Noting that suicide "ideation isn't rare among high-risk students," the author says what is unusual for Palo Alto "is the rate - four or five times the national average" at which Palo Alto students have succeeded in committing suicide.

The author criticizes what she terms "an unofficial gag order" in the community due to fear of contagion by mere mention of the word "suicide." She now finds somewhat more candor about increasing rates of depression among Palo Alto teens, as well as extended wait times for mental health services for them, noting that students are more willing to reflect on a high school atmosphere they find "unhealthily competitive" - "The kids paint a picture of a sort of academic coliseum, where students look down their noses at peers in a lower math 'lane,' guard their grade point averages like state secrets, brag about 2 a.m. cramming sessions and consider a B a disaster."

Yet other students point to the "ideals of the community" as a prime source of angst about "never doing enough."

The article concludes with students warning against "aiming arrows at false targets" as well as the "shady assumptions" that lie beneath the surface problems.

The unanswered question: what exactly are those "shady assumptions" in the cultural "ideals" of Palo Alto and Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley's tech, biotech and social media entrepreneurs have succeeded in becoming the new "Masters of the Universe" as in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Palo Alto (despite its mere 66,000 population and suburban landscape) may be likewise shaping itself into a new version of Manhattan. According to census data for both locales, Palo Alto is about the same in terms of square miles (23), and it has substantially higher median household income ($121K vs. $58K).

Palo Alto has its own Wall Street Journal outpost and New York Stock Exchange sales office, and a prime 11 AM spot on CNBC's market-day "Squawk Alley" program. Its downtown Apple store makes the news whenever CEO Tim Cook appears there to sell the first edition of the company's newest device.

Palo Alto's wealth culture was largely unscathed by the housing and financial meltdown that triggered the Great Recession of 2008-09. Lately, it's nannies, pre-schools and tutoring firms that are "partying like it's 1999."Traffic is back to boom-time levels, as are real estate prices: up 21% over the past 12 months though April to a median $2.36 million.

These charmed circumstances, however, offer the same temptation that captured the imaginations of Manhattan's 1980s bond traders: being really smart about one very big matter (as validated by the income scoreboard) can lead you to think you are right about everything that matters.

To its credit after the Great Recession, Silicon Valley got busy hiring while the rest of country was still firing. Its inventions are turning the publishing, music, telephone, news, automotive, data collection, retail, grocery, media, real estate, retailing, travel, taxi, hotel and health care businesses on their heads. The Valley is taking the California drought in stride with Astroturf lawns and "natural" landscaping. It seems no problem goes unsolved in the Valley.

And yet...there are the suicides, and in their aftermath, a challenge to think anew about Palo Alto's "success culture" and what really will constitute "success" for its children. After all, while the data does not reveal an abnormal amount of suicidal thoughts among Palo Alto youth, what does distinguish Palo Alto according to the San Francisco Magazine article is the alarming suicide success rate.

At its core, the Silicon Valley success culture reveals a fundamental contradiction. The Valley first convinced itself, and then told the rest of us, that the failure of a new product, service or VC investment was merely a step toward ultimate success (and a virtual guarantee of a new jobs for the failure's authors). This can be a wonderfully inspiring, optimistic perspective. The Valley's "failure is good" mantra, however, seems to be applied just to adults, and not to their children, especially not high school students prepping to be "credentialed" for life by college admission e-mail. The Valley seems also to have invented a new category of youth: "trophy kids." F's in business and finance are fine and dandy, but "we don't do B's."

Even so, the kids aren't cooperating lately; they don't really want to think of themselves as human smartphones. High schools are not "clean rooms" for producing perfect "chips" off the old block. "Imperfect" has no safe place at Intel, but it is a daily occurrence in any high school. It's so refreshing to see how Gunn High School students today are taking to Tumblr to celebrate themselves as they are.

But what about those vulnerable children who are still confronted at the core of their day with a literally impossible standard of perfection, seemingly hard-wired into their community's culture? Who wants to be discarded or burnt-out (the fate of all imperfect chips)? Fear Of Missing Out can take hold in terms of social media driven by put-downs and put-ons; of social status driven by grade comps; of parental responses likewise calibrated; of college admissions office largesse driven by checked boxes and coded ratings on double-secret templates.

Why colleges don't make their admission standards more transparent is beyond reckoning, except to enable the reprehensible "selectivity" game. Collectively, they are willfully fostering undue stress with children as pawns, and should be ashamed of themselves. Annual disclosure of college admissions scoring templates and algorithms (which would not preclude exceptions) should be a requirement of law for Federal aid flow to any college. Establishing such a system would not be "too hard" for the colleges with Silicon Valley's help, given its leadership and expertise in big data analytics - some Stanford students are doing it already!

The "Real High Schoolers of Palo Alto" have been interviewed, surveyed, photographed, analyzed and categorized to the nth power, but not necessarily heard enough, supported enough and loved enough by their community. If more adults followed the kids' example, they could yet put the persistent optimism that is also part of the Valley's culture to work on what has become its children's most pressing problem.

Silicon Valley prides itself on recognizing unmet needs and satisfying them, even before we even realize them ourselves. But, like Tiger Woods the Elder, the Valley is not used to playing from behind, and not very good at it. At such a point of painful self-awareness, however, the Valley recipe has always been to go back to fundamentals, ask hard questions and question old assumptions. And many Palo Alto leaders - educators, students, parents, physicians, counselors, citizens - are beginning to do just that.

Consider the recent report and recommendations of the new Creative Schedule Committee of Gunn High School, designed to optimize both student well-being and student learning - a new balance in the vocabulary of Palo Alto in terms of the mission of its public high schools. As stated in an editorial in the Palo Alto Weekly:

"Few would have predicted...that a diverse group of Gunn High School teachers, students, parents and administrators would have been able to come to a consensus recommendation on a new school bell schedule....But...the 'Creative Schedule Committee' met its deadline and unanimously recommended a new 'modified block' schedule that will result in Gunn students having fewer and longer class periods each day....to improve the quality of class time, allow time for more individual attention and group learning, and eliminate the grind of daily homework assignments and due dates in every class."

"...[S]tudents will end up attending three sessions per week for each of their classes, will have longer breaks between classes, and have a tutorial period on Tuesday mornings for meeting with teachers or counselors or attending grade-specific social-emotional learning programs. Teachers will have increased time for planning and collaboration."

"The work of this committee should serve as a school district model for effective stakeholder engagement....Let this accomplishment be a lesson that it need not take years to accomplish important reforms, just clear goals, good leadership and a process that is inclusive but efficient."
There remains much more to be accomplished, however, for Palo Alto to be a more sustaining community for all its high school students. For example, there is a critical lack of in-patient facilities for teens suffering acute mental and emotional distress, cited in both the San Francisco Magazine article and a very recent comprehensive study in the Palo Alto Weekly.

The Schedule Committee's model shows how Palo Alto can put to use the best part of the Silicon Valley culture: a "can-do" attitude, especially about "unmet needs." The needs of vulnerable Palo Alto teenagers are not unknown, they are crystal clear and they remain unfulfilled despite the type of known data that usually drives Silicon Valley thinking and action.

Three reasons are commonly cited to explain the absence of psych beds for teens in Santa Clara County - the home of Palo Alto and the heart of Silicon Valley;
1) Not enough beds to accommodate adults needing care;
2) Children's needs peak during school terms, so beds go unused, resulting in income loss hospitals can't afford;
3) Such specialized facilities (and staff) can't be re-purposed to other critical functions.

These points are analytically valid, but they prove too much: if all are indeed true, then logically there should be no such facilities for children anywhere. Yet there are, even in neighboring California counties. Why does the unmet need for youth psychiatric care wind up in the "too hard" basket in the heart of Silicon Valley of all places?

It is time for the business, philanthropic and medical community leaders of Palo Alto to seize the opportunity to form and fund their own "creative" task force to find the way to bring critically needed close-by psychiatric care for Palo Alto's most vulnerable students. What an opportunity that would be to create a new and positive example of "success" for Palo Alto's teens! Remember: it turned out that creating a new academic schedule for high school that everybody could agree with wasn't really "too hard" after all.

Likewise, it should not be "too hard" any longer for America's institutions of higher learning to own-up to the role they play in fostering unnecessary anxiety among high school students, abandon their selectivity game, and address the unmet need for far more transparency about their admissions standards. That step alone could make a major difference in the psyches of high school students, not only in Palo Alto but across the entire country.

The author is a Gunn High School parent and member of its Creative Schedule Committee.

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Terry Connelly is an economic expert and dean emeritus of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Terry holds a law degree from NYU School of Law and his professional history includes positions with Ernst & Young Australia, the Queensland University of Technology Graduate School of Business, New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, global chief of staff at Salomon Brothers investment banking firm and global head of investment banking at Cowen & Company. In conjunction with Golden Gate University President Dan Angel, Terry co-authored Riptide: The New Normal In Higher Education.