Teen Train Suicide Cluster Shakes Affluent California Town
Four Palo Alto, Calif., Teens Have Jumped in Front of a Train in the Past Six Months
By SARAH NETTER
Oct. 21, 2009"
A cluster of violent teen suicides in an affluent California town has officials scrambling to figure out why four kids from the same high school took their own lives and how to prevent others from doing the same.
The death of a 16-year-old boy Monday night in Palo Alto was believed to be the fourth suicide of a Gunn High School student since May. In all four cases, the teenagers jumped into the path of an oncoming commuter train operated by Caltrain.
"Parents are eager for information," said Joan Baran, clinical services director of the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto. "I think parents are wanting to know what they can do."
Information about the teenagers and the particulars of their deaths are being closely guarded by school and police officials who fear a public spectacle will only encourage more unstable students to take their lives.
"It's very difficult and it's very sensitive," Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said today.
The four teens entered the tracks near the East Meadow Road crossing, she said, "which is not very far from Gunn."
The rash of suicides started May 5, when a 17-year-old male committed suicide at 8:20 a.m. during the morning commute. He was followed June 2 by a 17-year-old girl and again Aug. 21 by a 13-year-old girl who was to have been a freshman at Gunn this fall.
The fourth Gunn student death happened at 10:50 p.m. Monday and although his death has not been officially determined as a suicide, officials believe he willingly put himself in front of the train.
It was unclear whether any of the teens were connected.
Suicide by train is not a new phenomenon in general, Bartholomew said, though this is the largest cluster of teen suicides Caltrain has seen in recent memory. Until the recent suicides, the last teen suicide for Caltrain was a 17-year-old boy in Redwood City, Calif., in January 2008.
Caltrain, which serves communities in the San Francisco Bay Area peninsula, has a weekday ridership of 40,000. In 2008, Bartholomew said, 12 out of the 16 fatalities involving Caltrain were suicides.
Baran told ABCNews.com that Palo Alto set up a committee called HEARD, comprised of pediatricians, schools, police and community agencies after the first two suicides this year "to come up with a response to address this pattern."
Parents, she said, were scared. Free parent education classes on dealing with teenage stress were already in place before the suicides, Baran said, but officials saw renewed interest after word got out.
Gunn High School referred all questions to the Palo Alto Unified School District. A district spokeswoman said there would be no statement from either the school or the district because "it's just felt that's the best approach."
Palo Alto Parents Worried Their Teens Might Be Next
Palo Alto police did not return messages seeking comment about the suicides, but Sgt. Dan Ryan told the San Jose Mercury News that he knows of six to eight more that had been prevented.
"The research we're being told is that the more we talk about it and romanticize it, the easier it is that mentally ill or depressed people will make that leap," he told the newspaper. "We're taking a stand and not releasing more information."
Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist for the Department of Psychiatry and Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, said today that suicide clusters among teens are rare but not unheard of, accounting for about 1 to 5 percent of all teen suicides.
Not only do the actual suicides of some teens encourage others who may already be thinking about it, she said, some studies have suggested that intense media coverage spurs others.
"It's like drugs," she said. "You pass around drugs and that encourages other kids to do it."
But authorities also have to be careful not to keep it so close to the vest that no information gets out.
"People do need to know what's going on," she said.
Kaslow said warning signs can include depression, giving away possessions, deterioration in both academics and social activities, general disinterest and substance abuse. Some teens, she said, will even go as far as to send out a text message or an e-mail to a friend to say goodbye.
"Often what happens is teens feel like things aren't going to get any better and no one understands them," she said. "There's so much much emotion."
Suicide by train is not very common among teenagers, she said. But it serves its purpose for kids who are serious about taking their own lives.
"A train is violent. There's no question about it," she said. "It works."
Kaslow said she was, coincidentally, in Palo Alto two weeks ago for an unrelated talk on depressed teenagers when -- not knowing about the prior suicides -- she mentioned leaping in front a train.
She was then stunned to learn about what had happened there in the spring and summer.
"Parents are extremely affected by this right now and they need help, too," she said of Palo Alto. "How do you know your kid isn't going to be next?"
Parents shouldn't avoid talking about suicide
Erin Allday, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Caltrain has installed many warnings and suicide preventi...
Talking about suicide does not cause people to commit suicide.
That's a critical message for parents and anyone else who deals with teenagers, say mental health experts. In Palo Alto, it's an especially important message now, days after a high school junior killed himself by standing in front of a Caltrain - the fourth such suicide in that city in six months.
Three of the teens, including the boy who killed himself Monday night, were students at Gunn High School, and the fourth was just days away from starting her freshman year there. Amid what some experts call a suicide cluster, it might seem reasonable to parents and teachers to avoid the topic, out of fear that talking about suicide makes kids want to do it.
But mental health experts said that now is the best time for parents to have difficult conversations with their sons and daughters.
"Some parents feel like it's better if they don't talk about what happened. But they can't just bury their heads in the sand," said Dr. Andrew Giammona, who heads the psychiatry department at Children's Hospital Oakland. "I guarantee that every kid in that high school knows about what happened."
In recent years there has been movement toward hiding or downplaying suicides - the media are encouraged to not report about people jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge or to avoid sensationalizing teen suicides, for example.
On Wednesday, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention issued a request to all Bay Area media to stop reporting on the Palo Alto suicides. It's true that people in the school community are talking about the deaths, said spokesman Wylie Tene, but "it's the amount of dialogue at this point."
"Every time it gets posted on Facebook or MySpace or people tweet about it, it gets out of control," Tene said. "At this point, any further coverage is just contributing to the contagion."
Certainly suicides shouldn't be sensationalized in the news, said mental health experts, but avoiding the topic stigmatizes suicide and makes it a taboo discussion, and that doesn't help people who are troubled and thinking about killing themselves. A handful of studies have shown that talking about suicide doesn't encourage people to do it, said Stephen Hinshaw, chair of the psychology department at UC Berkeley.
In the case of suicide clusters like those in Palo Alto, it's understandable that some in the community might believe that publicizing a young person's death could lead to more suicides, Hinshaw said.
"It's a mass contagion phenomenon," he said. "Kids might be thinking that this is a coping mechanism that I could use, too. But there is this totally misguided attitude that if you talk about drugs or sex or suicide, you might be encouraging it.
"People who are suicidal are thinking about it constantly. Confronting it acknowledges that someone is aware of their pain, and that can help."
Don't avoid the topic
Parents and school officials often feel as if they're walking a fine line in the aftermath of a suicide - they don't want to romanticize or sensationalize the death in such a way that suicide looks appealing to other students. But to ignore it isn't an option either, mental health experts said.
It's important that students be allowed to memorialize and grieve for peers who have killed themselves, experts said. But at the same time, parents and counselors need to remind students that suicide is not acceptable.
"You have to remember the good qualities about the student, and at the same time keep it front and center that this was not an adaptive response," said Dr. Stuart Lustig, a UCSF child psychiatrist. "Remind students that this person never went to prom or college, maybe never learned to drive. Teenagers think in the here and now. They forget to telescope a couple of years into the future."
In Palo Alto, counselors have been made available to students for group discussions and one-on-one meetings. Some mental health experts said it might be worthwhile to screen students for depression.
The most difficult role for any adult is talking to young people about suicide in the first place. Mental health experts said parents with teenagers who went to school with the young people who have died should bring up the subject with their children. And if they're worried that their own son or daughter is at risk, they should ask them directly.
"It's OK to say to a kid, 'Are you feeling depressed? Are you sad?' " said Giammona. "Kids won't necessarily like it on the surface, but they'll feel held and supported deeper down. Talk to your kid about suicide, about living."
Signs of depression
Parents who worry that their child may be depressed or considering suicide should look for these symptoms of depression:
-- Feeling or acting sad or irritable.
-- Changes in sleeping or eating patterns.
-- Trouble in school or a sudden drop in grades.
-- Lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable.
-- Withdrawing from friends or family. Spending more time alone.
-- Change in personality - someone who was once outgoing is suddenly quiet and shy.
Where to go for help:
Suicide and crisis hot line, (650) 494-8420
Teenline, (888) 247-7717
Parental stress hot line, (408) 279-8228
Imagine the outcry if the students had used GUNS to end their Earthly lives.
What is it about anti-gun supporters that makes them such violent and uncivilized posters?