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The Real Problem Behind Silicon Valley's Suicide Clusters

Photograph by Getty Images

Dear Palo Alto parents,

I don't live in Palo Alto, but I do live a few miles down the freeway, where the schools aren't as prestigious and the property values aren't quite as high. But I do consider the Silicon Valley both my current home and my hometown, and I feel a sense of personal sadness each time I've heard about a teen suicide over the past few years—and there were four of them in the last two years (and another cluster of six high school suicides in 2009-2010). But what also makes me sad is the reaction I hear from parents after each long-form news article attempting to delve into the root of these suicide clusters.

"It's the railroad tracks."

I hear that refrain too often. If the Caltrain didn't run right behind the high school, kids wouldn't have such an easy way to end their lives after a bad grade, lack of sleep or simply the everyday stress of being a millennial teen.

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So when friends started posting—without comment—news articles reporting that the Centers for Disease Control was launching a two-week investigation into the high rates of teen suicide in Palo Alto, my reaction was … finally!

I know, it's not lead contaminated water or the Zika virus. But isn't mental health a public health crisis, too?

I know, it's not lead contaminated water or the Zika virus. But isn't mental health a public health crisis, too? And not just individual ailments, chemical imbalances or personal histories, but also societal problems. Maybe, as some people say, lack of sleep may be behind the piercing depression that makes students believe they have no hope. When I read the essay by a Palo Alto High School junior recounting the level of stress she and her classmates carry, I was reminded of my own high school days. Only in my community, the parents weren't all CEOs, and back in the 1980s, we didn't have Instagram and Snapchat to carry the petty slights of high school life in our back pockets all day and night.

And I get especially sad when I hear parents dissecting whether this stress is a cultural thing. Yes, I do think it's a cultural thing. But not strictly Asian parenting culture, as some people imply. I've heard the whispers and insinuations that Tiger moms with their single-minded focus on academics are robbing today's teens of their American birthright of hanging out at football games and toilet papering the neighbor's house.

When I say culture is at play, I'm talking about a broader kind of culture: the norms of Silicon Valley, or upper-middle class America, of the haves and have-nots. There's a fear among parents whose houses seem to increase in value every week that a recession or a round of layoffs will send us packing from our beloved hometowns. We don't have hopes of living in the relative comfort that our parents had, with the assumption that a professional job would provide for a family through retirement. And we worry that our kids won't be able to survive in the economy that they'll be inheriting unless they're at the top of their class. As it gets more and more expensive to live in the Silicon Valley, our kids will have fewer role models who show them it's possible to have a happy and fruitful life as a social worker, an artist or any of the thankless rank and file jobs that never turn someone into the next Bill Gates.

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Something has to change. Many things probably have to change. Otherwise, I'm afraid this level of stress will only spread to surrounding neighborhoods and other similar communities where kids are growing up under the shadows of their high-achieving parents. Just like we often need a trusted friend who's willing to tell us the things they see we can't figure out in our own lives, as communities, we might need someone from the outside to see what we've become blind to. And if it takes the Feds to come in and give some outside advice, I'm willing to hear what they have to say.


A Concerned Neighbor

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