The Toxicity of Location: Teen Suicide in California’s Silicon Valley
This project is a requirement of the GOA Abnormal Psychology Course. Using the process of design thinking, a challenge in the world of mental health was identified, interviews and research were undertaken, and a solution prototype was developed. Below you will find information about the identified area of concern and my proposed solution. Please feel free to provide feedback on this prototype, using questions such as “How might we…”, “What if….?”, “I wonder….”, “I like…”, and “I wish.” Keep the comments positive, please. For more information on the process of Design Thinking, click here.
In the area I live in, teen suicide is unfortunately not uncommon. It’s one of those things that everyone is aware of and knows that it is there, but it’s never discussed. For a long time it remained a mystery to me why this was happening to so many kids in my area and what factors were contributing to this issue, until I experienced it for myself in two ways. I’ve had to repeatedly talk a girlfriend out of committing suicide, and the most recent experience I had with this was when I was diagnosed with moderate depression and anxiety about a month ago. I have since been prescribed medication to stabilize my mood and to help me feel more happy times than depressed times, and I have been in therapy for almost four months now to help with my mental state. My psychiatrist, who also doubles as my therapist, said that my depression is being intensified by stressors in my life and that is what prompted me to really look at what is contributing to that through my therapy sessions with her, and my own research. Unfortunately, the counseling office at my school is not known among the student population for being particularly helpful. They’re known to listen to what you have to say and not support you very well, and instead inform your parents and teachers that you’ve shown signs of depression so they keep an eye on every little thing you do, which really just causes even more anxiety.
What I hope this project does is start the dialogue between students and their school administrations, and students and their parents, who don’t understand what is going on with this generation of teens.
I am interested to see if you guys feel the same about your school’s counseling office and would greatly appreciate it if you would fill out the survey below.
This survey is anonymous and the results can be seen here:
In Palo Alto, teen suicide on the railroad that runs through town has happened so frequently that at each opening where people can walk into the tracks, the town and CalTrain have stationed security guards to prevent others from being able to do the same. They have also placed Crisis Hotline signs alongside Active Railroad signs in the hope that people will call the hotline instead of jumping in front of the trains (see image below).
According to a report from the CDC, the rate of youth (ages 10-24) suicides per 100,000 people was 14.1 from 2003 to 2015. In the county that Palo Alto is a part of, Santa Clara County, the rate was 5.4 per 100,000 making Palo Alto’s rate 2.6 times higher than the county rate. (See image below).
On the left side of this table are the suicide rates from 2003-2015 in Palo Alto and other towns in the area. On the right side are the predicted rates and Palo Alto is not predicted to go down. It has the lowest relative standard error (RSE) out of all of the other towns on the table. Basically, what that means is there is a 9% chance that the CDC’s predictive calculations of the suicide rate in Palo Alto are wrong. To give you a little bit of an understanding of what students in Palo Alto are feeling, here is a nationally televised ABC Nightline report where students and former teachers share their stories on student’s depression and anxiety.
Teens in the area surrounding Palo Alto also feel that they live in a “pressure cooker environment” as Martha Cabot said in her YouTube video that was excerpted in this report. The pressure to become a successful business person, a tech mogul like Mark Zuckerberg, a doctor, or a lawyer is high. Living in this area, those are the successful positions that we are constantly surrounded with. Many of my peer’s parents are doctors, lawyers, venture capitalists, or have other successful careers and on top of that, we live less than 3.5 miles away from Stanford University. For many students, their goal is to make it through high school with excellent grades and then go to Stanford and be a business major or a medical student. This was the dream for my best friend and for many of my peers who I have been going to school with for the last 13 years.
Students here feel that they are expected to be the best and be the next Zuckerberg. As a passionate actor and someone who will be going to college for theatre, I cannot tell you how many times I have been told that it’s not a good idea to follow acting because of how hard it is to “make it” in the industry. I have been asked countless times, “So what’s your backup plan?” after telling people that I want to study theatre. With things like that constantly going in your ear, it’s really tempting to leave what you’re passionate about to go follow the money and study to get a more stable job.
This issue isn’t just happening in Palo Alto. All across the U.S., students are feeling stressed and pressured to go to good colleges and get high-paying jobs. Looking at the increase in the national youth suicide rate, youth suicide is becoming more and more frequent all across the country. Since 2000, the national youth suicide rate has gone up from 10.1 people per 100,000 to 13.15 per 100,000 as shown in black in the graph below (graph screengrabbed from afsp.org).
This is why I wanted to make this project. Older generations have said that they don’t understand why the teen suicide rate is starting to climb so much. The pressure and stress that teens are experiencing in our everyday lives is a major contributor to this incline.
The most important thing that we can do for this issue is start a conversation. Student’s need to speak up if they are feeling that their school’s counseling offices aren’t helping, that they are feeling this pressure, and that they don’t feel like they can talk about their mental health because of the stigma surrounding this topic in our society. If an open dialogue is started between parents, students, and schools in a way that doesn’t make kids feel like they are going to be under a microscope, a big change can be made. If we have an open dialogue and people willing to listen to what the youth have to say, I believe that teens will be much more willing to reach out for help if they need it.
If you feel so compelled, use this hashtag on social media: #SpeakUpReachOut
Start the conversation at your school. Bring a friend to talk to your school’s administration so you don’t have to go alone. Show your parents this page and have them read it so they can get an idea of how to help. Be sure to ask questions that start with, “What if….? How might we….? I wonder…..?” This will help start you along the road to thinking about solutions that will be meaningful and effective in your community. (Some examples of that are shown below in the next two paragraphs)
Parents want to help their kids. It’s their job and you are important to them. What my parents asked me when I first came to them was “What can we do to help?” which wasn’t what I expected to happen. I thought that they would judge me and panic, but they didn’t which was a huge relief. If you are a parent reading this, consider asking yourself, “How might I help my child without making it seem like I am judging them?” or, “How can I be there to listen to them and be there for them when they are feeling down?”.
Students, ask yourselves how you can start the conversation in your school. For example, “How can we bring this up with the administration in a way that promotes peaceful discussion?”. Maybe offer solutions to your administration such as, “What if we have a meeting after school with students who want to voice their feelings on the counseling office and/or what they have been going through with stress/pressure?”.
There are many questions that can be asked and solutions that can be offered to best fit your communities. Not every school community is alike and thinks the same way.
Here at home, I plan to start a conversation with my administration about this issue and I will work with the local organization, SafeSpace, to do so. I have good relationships with all of the administrators at my school and I feel like this is something that they would want to hear from me and other students who are feeling this way. Since I am a senior that is about to graduate, I will be passing this down to the underclassmen at my school who are also involved with SafeSpace and who are trying to bring this issue to light as well. They are planning an assembly for the next school year to present to the student body and faculty to help create a more empathetic environment for struggling students.
CDC report on youth suicide: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/phd/hi/hd/epi-aid/Documents/epi-aid-report.pdf
ABC News: Nightline: http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/suicide-cluster-palo-alto-students-share-stories-anxiety-36992739
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/