Palo Alto has received considerable attention in recent years from media and mental health professionals concerned about its alarming rates of teen suicide. In this affluent Bay Area town, seven adolescents ended their own lives in the span of just ten years. And, over the past decade, there has been an unusual amount of teen suicide clusters.
The first suicide cluster in Palo Alto was in 2009-2010, when six students took their own lives within several months of each other. Four of them were students at the same high school. Then, in 2014-2015, four more teens in Palo Alto committed suicide. In fact, between two Palo Alto high schools, the suicide rate over the past decade has been four or five times the national average.
Current Suicide Statistics for Palo Alto High School Students
What is the situation like right now, in 2020?
The most recent, comprehensive report on teen suicide and mental health in Palo Alto, specifically, is the 2017-2018 California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS).
Every academic year, the California Department of Education-Coordinated School Health and Safety Office administers a survey to public school students in districts across the state. The survey asks students about safety and crime at school, experiences of bullying, academics, mental health, substance use, and more. It also asks how connected they feel to their families and to their school staff. The organization releases the results to the public in November of the following school year.
This anonymous, confidential, survey was administered to Palo Alto Unified students in grades seven, nine, and eleven in 2017-2018. The following data shows the percentage of high school students in Palo Alto Unified School District who engage in drug use or experience mental health issues.
Palo Alto High School Students – Mental Health and Substance Use Statistics
|Current alcohol or drug use*
|Current binge drinking*
|Very drunk or “high” 7 or more times, ever
|Current cigarette smoking*
|Current electronic cigarette use*
|Experienced chronic sadness/hopelessness§
We compared previous CHKS surveys to the most recent one shown here. Analysis shows rates of suicidal ideation in Palo Alto high school students are, fortunately, declining.
In 2009-2010, for example, 18 percent of 9th and 11th graders said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. In 2017, that number decreased to 12.5 percent – that’s a 5.5 percent decrease in suicidal ideation.
Also, in this 2017 survey, an average of 22 percent of high school students reported they experienced chronic sadness and hopelessness. These students answered yes to the question:
“During the past 12 months, did you ever feel so sad and hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more that you stopped doing some usual activities?”
Although 22 percent is cause for concern, this rate is still better than the 24.6 percent of students who answered yes to the same question in 2010.
Preventing Teen Suicide in Palo Alto
Palo Alto takes its teen mental health issue seriously. After the wave of suicides in the past decade, Santa Clara County (SCC) acted on a large scale. First, it enlisted the aid of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC’s Epi-Aid Report examined the factors that led to the teen suicide clusters and provided several suicide-prevention recommendations to the county.
The CDC advised Santa Clara County officials to incorporate more school-based programs that focus on strengthening peer connections and fostering coping/emotion-regulation skills among students. The Epi-Aid also recommended that officials encourage more family-based programming, such as parent training courses and family therapy. Finally, they advised school districts to provide better access to evidence-based mental health treatment programs. Since the investigation found that mental health issues like depression were one major risk factor for suicide, they recommended giving more resources to help with stress, crises, and general mental health conditions.
Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services Department (BHSD) took the CDC advice – and so far, the actions steps advised by the CDC have made an impact. A 2019 press release, which shows that the general suicide rate in SCC is declining, also discussed the suicide prevention efforts the county was taking overall.
The Action Steps: Santa Clara County
Here’s what SCC’s Behavioral Health Services Department has done:
- Organized suicide prevention trainings for high school teachers and school staff in the county.
- Strengthened community partnerships in Palo Alto.
- Implemented a suicide prevention campaign aimed at youth.
- Established the Crisis Text Line. Teens can text RENEW to 741741.
- Expanded mobile crisis response teams to the general public
- Spread awareness on safe suicide reporting in the media.
They took that last step, related to the media, because the Epi-Aid report stated that inappropriate media reporting during the suicide clusters may have led to a contagion effect among the students.
The Action Steps: Santa Clara Schools
Schools, themselves, took internal action too. A sizeable number of the students who ended their own lives during the suicide clusters had attended two high schools in particular: Gunn High School and Palo Alto Senior High School, known locally as “Paly” in Palo Alto. In response, one sophomore and one former teacher at the school started a grassroots campaign called “Save the 2008—for Healthier High Schools.” The number 2008 referenced the 2008 remaining students and staff members at Gunn High School during the 2014-2015 academic year, the year another student ended his own life. This group champions education reform in the Palo Alto Unified School District by advocating for specific changes in school policy.
“Save the 2008” has six main objectives:
- Create smaller class sizes so that no one feels lost in the crowd, and teachers are more accessible
- Ban cell phones on campus, to limit all-day dependence on social media
- Moderate nightly homework loads
- Require guidance counseling before students can enroll in multiple AP classes
- Limit grade-reporting to four times a year instead of every three weeks
- Crackdown on cheating, which exists largely as a way for overburdened students to survive outsized workloads, outsized classes where it’s hard to get teacher help, and a culture that emphasizes grades over mental health and wellbeing
Students, parents, public health officials – and everyone watching with concern around the country – hope these enhanced, ongoing suicide prevention efforts will result in an even greater decline in Palo Alto’s teen suicide rate in the coming years.