Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Best, Brightest — and Saddest?

Courtesy of a colleague.
What he was saying — and what’s obvious, but warrants repeating — is that ushering children toward a bright future means getting them there in one piece.
There’s a fresh awareness of that here, and perhaps a new receptiveness to some words of his that should echo far beyond Palo Alto: “Want the best for your child, not for your child to be the best.”
See:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-best-brightest-and-saddest.html?mwrsm=Email&_r=0


  1. To a person, Gunn students say that their school is unhealthily competitive. “If one person is succeeding, it means that someone else is falling behind,” says one senior. Sophomore Olivia Eck describes a culture of unbounded striving: “There’s no middle point for success. There’s no ‘I’m here and I’m happy with where I am.’ It’s always ‘I need to be up there,’” she says. 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.

    While they’re relentlessly pushed to chase higher grades and greater commendations, students say, they are simultaneously pressured to maintain an air of confidence and composure. Gaby Candes, a Gunn sophomore whose parents are both Stanford professors, refers to the condition as “Stanford duck syndrome”: “Everybody puts on a front of being super-relaxed and perfect, but under the surface they’re kicking furiously,” she says. “When all you see is calm ducks, you think that you are the only one who’s not perfect.” The attitude even bleeds into class activities that are intended to ameliorate stress. “We’re always doing exercises where they say, ‘We all have problems, and other people have problems just like you,’” says junior Hayley Krolik. “But nobody really believes it. This isn’t really an environment where people talk about being less than perfect.”

    With everyone paddling desperately (but stealthily) in pursuit of distinction, pulling out front becomes nearly impossible.


  2. Six young people in Palo Alto died by suicide in 2009 and 2010, and another four in 2014 and 2015. Several among them took their lives on the tracks of the Caltrain, the commuter train that runs through town and connects San Francisco and San Jose. Of high school students in Palo Alto surveyed during the 2013-2014 school year, 12 percent had seriously considered suicide in the last year. From the beginning of the following school year through March, 42 students at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto had been hospitalized or treated for “significant suicide ideation.” Overall, the suicide rate at Palo Alto’s two public high schools in the past decade is four times the national average.

    Following the two clusters of youth suicides in Palo Alto in recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have sent a five-person team to conduct an epidemiological assessment, the San Jose Mercury News reports. The California Department of Public Health issued a formal request for help from the federal agency on behalf of Santa Clara County Public Health Department...

    The inquiry will be in the form of what’s called an “Epi-Aid,” or an investigation of an urgent public health problem. Over the past few months, the CDC has been working with Santa Clara County health officials to prepare for the visit, collecting data on fatal and non-fatal suicidal behavior among youth in the area between 2008 and 2015...

    The main goals of the assessment, according to a fact sheet posted on Project Safety Net’s website, are to identify and track trends in suicidal behavior among youth between 2008 and 2015; examine whether media coverage met safe reporting guidelines for suicide; inventory youth suicide prevention policies, activities and protocols; compare those to national and other evidence-based recommendations; and, ultimately, use all of that information and insight to “make recommendations on youth suicide prevention strategies that can be used at the school, city, and county level.”

    Though “Epi-Aid” investigations are usually directed toward infectious disease outbreaks, the Santa Clara County assessment is not without precedent. In November 2014, the CDC sent a team to Fairfax, Virginia, to conduct a similar investigation of youth suicides, culminating in a 224-page report detailing its findings, provided to the Fairfax County Health Department in June 2015. According to the Mercury News, the “Epi-Aid” team that arrived in Palo Alto on Tuesday will release a preliminary report soon after it completes its field work and follow up with a more comprehensive report in several months.


  3. Alyssa took her seat inside. It was November 4, 2014, a few days after homecoming and maybe a month before college applications would start making everyone crazy. The teacher read a statement containing the words took his own life last night, and then a name, Cameron Lee. Alyssa’s first thought: Is there another Cameron Lee at our school?, because the one she knew was popular and athletic and seemingly unbothered by schoolwork, an avid practitioner of the annoying prank of turning people’s backpacks inside out...

    That morning the school district’s superintendent, Glenn “Max” McGee, called Kim Diorio, the principal of the system’s other public high school, Palo Alto High, to warn her, “This is going to hit everyone really hard.” McGee was new to the district that year, but he’d known the history when he took the job. The 10-year suicide rate for the two high schools is between four and five times the national average. Starting in the spring of 2009 and stretching over nine months, three Gunn students, one incoming freshman, and one recent graduate had put themselves in front of an oncoming Caltrain. Another recent graduate had hung himself. While the intervening years had been quieter, they had not been comforting. School counselors remained “overwhelmed and overloaded” with an influx of kids considered high risk, says Roni Gillenson, who has helped oversee Gunn’s mental-health program since 2006. Twelve percent of Palo Alto high-school students surveyed in the 2013–14 school year reported having seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months...

    In training, they’d learned that one key to heading off copycats was not romanticizing the death, so they struggled to hit just the right tone. They had to avoid turning Cameron into a hero or a martyr without insulting his memory or his devastated family. They had to make a space for the kids to grieve without letting wreath-and-teddy-bear memorials take over the campus. In 2009, to commemorate Jean-Paul “J.P.” Blanchard, the first kid in that cluster to die on the tracks, students had spread rose petals all over the school. Tarn Wilson recalls them as beautiful and haunting but also morbid, and exactly the kind of prop that a depressed teenager might imagine as a backdrop to his own future tragedy.

    The night after Cameron’s death, some classmates sneaked onto campus and chalked it up with messages like we love you cameron and rip cameron—but administrators talked with students and, after a day, had the messages erased...

    Cameron’s death made it hard to maintain that narrative, because “he was like everyone’s kid,” says one parent whose son was a friend of his. “The prevailing feeling was: What’s the difference between this kid and my kid? Nothing. There is no safe space. My kid could be next.”...

    Some three months after Cameron Lee’s suicide, and about four months after that of Quinn Gens, Harry Lee, a Gunn senior unrelated to Cameron, killed himself by jumping from the roof of a building. One suicide cluster could be anomalous. In the United States, there are about five youth clusters a year. But now Palo Alto was well into its second. You’d have to be blind or stupid not to see a pattern, and Palo Alto’s parents were neither. Seventy-four percent of Gunn students have at least one parent with a graduate degree.


  4. In November 2014, the CDC conducted similar research in Fairfax, Va., and found “multiple risk factors,” including high expectations for students, parental pressure on students for success and parental denial of mental health issues among their children. It found that 72 percent of youth suicides exhibited mental health problems.

    Community members hope that the study will yield responses to the question that has plagued them for the past seven years, when the first suicides began: If these kids had everything they needed to succeed, why were so many choosing to or contemplating giving up on life altogether?

    In the note that Lee left behind, he wrote that no one was to blame. Not school, not family or friends. He said he felt simply that he had no future in the world, despite his good grades the people who loved him...

    In “The Problem With Rich Kids,” published by Psychology Today in November 2013, former Yale psychologist Suniya Luthar noted that social, emotional and behavioral issues are as prevalent in the wealthy end of the socioeconomic spectrum as they are on the poor end.

    She said that, on average, rich offspring experience serious levels of depression and anxiety at twice the national rates.

    “The evidence all points to one cause underlying the different disturbances documented: pressure for high-octane achievement,” Luthar wrote. “The children of affluent parents expect to excel at school and in multiple extracurriculars and also in their social lives. … It plays out in crippling anxiety and depression, about anticipated or perceived achievement ‘failures.'”...

    Shortly after Lee’s death, a 16-year-old Gunn classmate named Martha Cabot uploaded a YouTube video urging Palo Alto parents to change their attitudes.

    “Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements,” she said. “I’m trying to raise awareness — especially for the parents. We love our moms and we love our dads, but calm down.”