How Teen Suicides Force A Community To Deal With Death

Illustration for article titled How Teen Suicides Force A Community To Deal With Death

A California community is mourning a cluster of teen suicide victims — all of whom ended their lives by jumping in front of a train. The manner of their death has turned private tragedy into public conversation.


According to the AP, four Palo Alto teenagers, the youngest just 13, have committed suicide on the CalTrain tracks in the last six months. (Another boy was saved from doing so when his mother followed him there.) Greg Hermann, a spokesman for the city, says "there is no single answer" to why the kids died, but "there are intelligent steps we can be taking." These include keeping what now looks like a suicide "cluster" from growing — Merily Keller, a founder of the Texas Suicide Prevention Council, says, "One of the biggest risk factors is knowing another kid who has died by suicide." Parents, teachers, and kids at Henry M. Gunn High School, attended by three of the victims, are doing everything they can to lessen this risk. Students have created a peer support group, t-shirts that say, "Talk to Me," and a no-suicide pact. Teachers are giving out their home phone numbers, and parents are following advice to ask their kids directly if they would ever consider suicide. Madeline Gould, a Columbia University psychiatrist who has studied suicide clusters, emphasizes that prevention is necessary and possible:

These poor kids died from an untreated psychiatric illness, or undertreated. It's not as if it's a mysterious thing and it's not as if it's not preventable. Unfortunately, there is the misconception that if someone wants to die by suicide, it's inevitable. That's not the case. The impulse to kill yourself waxes and wanes.


Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among Americans between 15 and 24, and while their act is sadly common, the four teens' method may seem unusual. But for Palo Alto, it isn't. For two years, I lived in an adjacent town on the San Francisco Peninsula, and I took the CalTrain to work every day. During that time, at least three people died on the tracks — it happened often enough that the CalTrain authorities at one point placed printed notes on each of the seats, apologizing to riders for the deaths. After a man committed suicide at my stop, just minutes before I got there, I learned that the CalTrain is one of the few commuter trains in America that passes through densely populated areas almost exclusively at street level — it's a very convenient mode of transportation, and also a disturbingly convenient way to kill yourself.

And it's a pretty public way to go. When someone died on the tracks, the trains would shut down in both directions for about half a day. All the commuters had to find another way to work — I remember shuffling onto buses along with a lot of shocked people in business suits, thinking that we had essentially become the suicide victim's funeral procession. The train employees were probably even more deeply affected than the passengers — especially the conductor who had the unenviable job of checking if victims were still alive. Usually when a private citizen commits suicide, family and friends grieve, but the wider world hears about the tragedy through a small notice in the paper, if at all. But just as trains bring together people whose lives wouldn't ordinarily intersect, a suicide on the tracks has a collective impact: it's an oddly civic death, one that becomes an entire community's to analyze and mourn.

Because of this, the Palo Alto train suicides seem uniquely suited to a communal response. Gunn High School's programs are a start. I know that CalTrain was working on suicide prevention back when I lived in California, but I also know that it remained pretty easy to get out onto the tracks. Better fences and gates might save lives. But Palo Alto might also think of the cultural implications of its suicide cluster. Do kids at Gunn — a major feeder for Stanford University — feel insurmountable pressure to achieve? Do the economics of Palo Alto, a high-income community that stands in stark separation to its lower-income, higher-crime neighbor East Palo Alto, contribute to this pressure? Might kids in both places do better if this economic segregation could be lessened? Hermann is right that "there is no single answer" for why four teens committed suicide, but there are many possible answers. And because of the nature of the suicides, Palo Alto is uniquely placed to seek these answers collectively, and to teach the country how to do so.

Anguish Over Calif. Teen Suicides Spurs Action [AP, via MSNBC]

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With apologies in advance for the long comment...

I live in Menlo Park, which is the next town over from Palo Alto, and I can attest that the CalTrain tracks run right through neighborhoods and business districts, and most of the crossings are level rather than grade separated ~ meaning that all a person has to do to get in front of an oncoming train is to duck under a little pedestrian gate. I've lived here for 15 years, and in that time I've crossed those tracks mutiple times every day, to get from our neighborhood to downtown Menlo Park & Palo Alto. I always cross with a touch of trepidation, even in my car and certainly when my kids & I are on bikes. So many people have been killed on the tracks during my time here that I have an abundance of respect for the trains, and I shudder a little when the non-locals come screaming through at top speed. In a contest between person and train, train *always* wins.

I knew a couple of people who killed themselves in high school, one a year to the day after finding his mom dead of a suicide in the family swimming pool, the other because his girlfriend had broken up with him. The first guy obviously had huge emotional trauma from his mother's death and might have killed himself no matter what, but the second, I think, would have gotten over the breakup and gone on to live a normal life, had he not succeeded in killing himself at 17.

I do believe that the idea of suicide waxes and wanes in young adults quite commonly, and access to quick and lethal methods of killing oneself, like CalTrain and the Golden Gate Bridge, make it all too easy for someone to act upon what might otherwise be a fleeting notion. CalTrain has to figure out a way to make these tracks less accessible. As for the pressure cooker these kids live in ~ it's real, it's acute and I don't know what the answer is. It makes me very scared for my 6 and 8-year old kids, and I just hope that I'm able to instill in them the belief that they can follow their own path, and it doesn't have to lead to an Ivy. It's crazy competitive around here, and so hard for kids to opt out of that mentality, but right now I think people are getting a hard look at the what you reap when you sow that type of hyper competitive culture.