One of the best public high schools in the United States has prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to launch an investigation following two suicide clusters in under a decade.
Good college means high pressure environment?
Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California is a the hallmark of the Palo Alto Unified School District. It’s a place where students are working around the clock in SAT prep and advanced placement classes in order to get into the most prestigious universities the world offers. Unfortunately, and perhaps the result of this environment, the school has twice suffered “suicide clusters.”
Between 2009 and 2010, five students or recent graduates took their own lives. In what is sometimes referred to as an “echo cluster,” between October 2014 and March 2015 the school saw another wave of suicides. A cluster as defined by the CDC is three suicides in a short period of time in the same place.
The echo saw four teens take their lives with most throwing themselves in from of a train operated by CalTrain, whose tracks run near the school. Of those four, three attended Henry M. Gunn High School.
“It was a huge shock and there was a silent tension on campus on the following days,” a student, Shawna Chen, told ABC News. “It was hard for people to wrap their heads around it.” Chen heard of the suicides when she told friends she would be attending Gunn, and was a student during the “echo.”
In recent years, the CDC has looked at the “suicide contagion” risk in Fairfax Country, Virginia as well as two separate counties in Delaware where troubled teens went the suicide route.
Somewhat strangely, the CDC investigates these contagion risks as it would a bacterial or viral outbreak.
It’s easy to think of a suicide as an individual act but in the case of teens and young adults they have to potential to cause a ripple effect.
“Their relationships with other teens really start to play much more of a role than their relationships with their parents, and so they influence each other more,” says Madelyn Gould, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Between both the social influences and biological influences, it makes them much more vulnerable to being influenced by somebody else’s suicide.”
What can the CDC do?
Gould is an expert on the matter and has studied over 50 suicide clusters in her work. She is quick to point out that the one thing that nearly each of them had in common was the clusters’ median age.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans between the age of 15 to 24 according to the CDC.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘suicide town,'” Gould told ABC News. “It crosses every socio-economic community from impoverished to wealthy, black to white, Native American. It really crosses all divides in the United States.”
The CDC will arrive to the city of Palo Alto as school administrators and doctors are looking at programs to help students cope with stress. At Gunn, students are being taught breathing exercises and yoga to deal with stress and former students are being asked to back to talk about life after Henry M. Gunn High School.
“We want to make sure that everyone knows it’s okay to seek help if you’re feeling blue, down, anxious,” said Denise Herrmann who has been the principal of Gunn High School for the last 18 months “So, students have made sure they’ve written stories, they’ve done videos. Actually, some of our students teamed up to do a documentary.”
Good luck to the CDC.