The Suicide Clusters in Palo Alto

- 7 mins

TW: suicide, depression

I remember hearing it from my English teacher. She was late to class, and as she stood in front of us, she started sobbing. It felt like a punch to my gut—she was always cheerful and caring, and to see her hurt like that without knowing him personally is something I’ll never forget. She told us that he died on the train tracks. I knew him. He was in my English class the previous year, and I remember him as a kind, funny, and happy person. He would always show up late to our morning class, like me. We had many mutual friends but never really talked. That day felt unreal. People sobbed openly in the hallways and leaned on each other for support. Teachers told us we could take time to ourselves to process, but how could we even begin to process that someone so young and full of life had taken his own life? We wondered why—why he did it, and why he wasn’t the first or last.

The suicide clusters in Palo Alto during my high school years took a huge toll on my community. Within a span of a few years, seven people took their own lives. The number of suicides we had in our affluent, suburban neighborhood was five times the national average. For weeks, people posted on social media–changing their profile pictures and posting their sorrow and support. Our pain was sensationalized in the national news, and we became “the suicide town.”

At the time, I felt that the actions taken by the administration didn’t necessarily help. Although they had good intentions and tried taking steps to make things better, I felt like they were quick to blame and find easy answers instead of trying to understand our perspectives. I remember having to jump through more hoops to take the classes I wanted. I remember them banning zero period on account of the stress it induced, even when students were clearly saying that banning it would induce more stress. I remember students not feeling heard, and some of my brave peers standing up for themselves and the other students. While this was happening, I circled like a satellite in orbit, not quite sure what to do or how to help. I remember withdrawing, becoming even more introverted, and feeling like a stranger looking in.

I was living in pain and grief from the deaths (along with my own set of personal problems), yet I pushed through. I didn’t have the time or emotional capacity to fully process everything–there was always the next test to study for, assignment to complete, or event to attend. The only way I knew how to cope was to make art as a way to escape, write about how I was feeling, listen to sad music, talk with my close friends, and ultimately pursue my own ambitions. I shifted into survival mode, where I was hyperfocused on seeing how much I could take on. I pushed my mind to perform like an athlete pushes her body, yet the race I ran felt like I was sprinting towards some unknown destination and jumping through hoops made by others–all to prove I was the shiniest pony. While I felt fulfilled in my extracurriculars and poured my heart into what I was doing, I was using accomplishments to fill a deep void within me. In the in-between moments, I often felt empty, numb, and lonely. Only in college have I been able to reflect on the dark moments, slow down without feeling like I’m not doing enough, and heal from the emotional roller coaster that was high school.

The contradictions and failures of the place I love are something I still grapple with. I grew up with such genuine, good-hearted, and creative people. My peers inspired me with their passion and ambition. Most teachers truly cared, and they taught well. Our resources were truly unparalleled, and our amenities included an Olympic-sized pool, outdoor track with fake grass, exercise equipment, machine shop, library, computer room, theater, auto shop, and photography darkroom. But the academic pressure–tying numbers to your self-worth, the achievements of your peers, the expectations from parents, the judgment from teachers themselves–was ingrained into our culture. It was normal to feel stressed, get little sleep, and push yourself. Somehow, being a kid became a walk on a tightrope, not a run in the wild as it should be. The system rewarded me and others with similar inclinations towards classes, structure, and STEM. Meanwhile, it crushed a lot of people who didn’t fit a certain mold. I saw it in the people closest to me–a pressure that wore them down and lowered their self-esteem. The school system (not just in my hometown, but across the country) picks people for certain characteristics without fostering individual potentials. And that is a huge shame.

Some people see academic pressure as the main driver of the suicide clusters. That may explain some of it, but there are schools across the country that are just as academically rigorous, or even more so. So what’s different in Palo Alto? I don’t have the answers, but I will say that most parents are highly educated and have a defined view of success–because many of them embody it. The cost of living is high, so kids whose parents didn’t grow up there or aren’t extremely wealthy, technology leaders, or Stanford professors, know that they live in an expensive area for education. I’m not going to go too much into race, but there are a lot of parents (mostly Asian) who immigrated to the US for better opportunities and career advancement. Suffice to say that many of these parents wanted what was best for their kids, no matter the cost.

Additionally, there is a culture of putting on your best face–a narrative that people are now pushing hard against, thankfully. The Stanford “Duck Syndrome” permeates in local high schools. We have great weather, food, and opportunities–feeling miserable when those around you seem to have it together leads to added stress. We have to learn to not be okay and open up about our struggles, mental health or otherwise.

People can say that my generation has it good, that we’re coddled by safe spaces and liberal institutions. That our mental health problems come from a lack of perspective and struggle. And maybe that’s true. But we’re also the subject of a worldwide experiment on social media and phone addiction. The technologists who strive to make phones ever more addicting make sure to limit their own kid’s usage. We’re in a sleep crisis, which certainly isn’t helping our mental health. We living through one of the most polarizing moments in our nation’s politics since the Civil War. We’re still fighting about the 2nd amendment despite too many mass shootings. Housing and college tuition are at an all-time high. The decisions of our previous generation led to unsustainable living, consumerism, and the meritocratic myth. Each generation has their own struggles, and my generation’s struggle is to succeed in systems that don’t best support us.

Talking to my close friends now, many of us lived through depression in high school and didn’t know how bad it was until we left. Some of my classmates spent time in mental hospitals. For every person who died by suicide, many more attempted. And many more struggle with depression and other mental health problems in silence.

Now, in a strange turn of events, I’m back at home—spending time in my childhood room, regressing to my high school self, revisiting the routes I took growing up, seeing the things that have shaped me and how the world has changed since I last left. I’m in therapy for the first time in my life, and I’ve been realizing so many things. I’ve been realizing why I am the way I am and why other people are the way they are. I’m putting in the hard, messy work to heal and honor my emotions. I’m learning more about mental health and wellness—it’s one thing to know it, it’s another to live by it. I’m learning to hold space for multiple emotions—to learn to love people and places while still recognizing the hurt. Through pain and love, I am learning to be happy.

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