Reflections on the Silicon Valley Teen Suicides-by-Train: Fifteen Years Later

8
2729

Though still heartbreaking to families and to the entire communities in which they occur, teen suicide attempts are now relatively common. According to a recent report about American high school students, 42% experienced persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness; 22% seriously considered attempting suicide; 18% made a suicide plan; and 10% actually attempted suicide in the past year alone. 

These figures are consistent with my own experiences when I am on call at my medical center in the greater Los Angeles area: often, there are a dozen or more suicidal teens captured in the ER here, detained on California’s 5150 code and waiting to gain admission to our inpatient psychiatric ward. The numbers today truly are staggering.

But back in 2009-2010, the years of the first of three “suicide clusters” in Palo Alto, teen suicides across America were rarer. Suicide by jumping into the path of an oncoming train was rarer still, if not totally unknown. Yet, all three of my (Palo Alto-raised) kids knew at least one peer who had died by suicide that way. My daughter shared a private art tutor and went trick-or-treating every Halloween with one who died. That girl was utterly amazing, the envy of all: creative, smart, lovely, and beautifully dressed in the latest fashions from Hot Topic. My two sons and I also knew a very well-liked and athletic boy who lived across the street. My sons and he playfully used to throw bright orange-red pyracantha berries at each other, and otherwise chase each other around in our neighborhood after school. The boy’s father was at one time the President of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) in our Palo Alto Unified School District. Many of the kids who died, quite gruesomely there on the Caltrain tracks, appeared to have it all, and to be from loving and supportive homes.

(Warning: graphic details ahead.) 

One of the mothers in my congregation at the time, Beth Am in Palo Alto, witnessed one of the suicides from her car at the Caltrain station in Palo Alto. She told her Rabbi, Rabbi Janet Marder, who in turn told her congregation: A teenage girl was crawling on all fours toward the train track pit, then back away from the tracks, then back to the tracks, then away from the tracks, then back again. Back and forth, back and forth. By the time the woman realized what was happening and started to respond, the girl was gone, and the massive, double-decker, fast-moving train had screeched into the station.

Nearly a dozen Palo Alto teens died this way. Finally, the City of Palo Alto put a security guard there. The guard succeeded in wrestling some 18 more teens off of the tracks. Then, finally, technology offered a solution: insurmountably high fences and surveillance cameras. 

It was terrible when the kids died. The impact of the deaths reverberated and continues to reverberate, years later. A sister of one of the boys who died recently married one of my own kids’ best friends. That girl endured years of ECT after her brother’s death. Two of my own three kids also fell into depressive states that lasted many years. The suicides seemed to trigger a general darkening in the mood at the schools. The clusters were and are bandaged-over–but still, there are wounds. Taints. Stains. They mark a loss of innocence that our teens collectively could not and cannot reclaim.

It was shocking, and baffling. How could these magnificent young people, most of whom were from wealthy and supportive homes, do that? They were in youth’s bloom. They were socially skilled and academically successful. Until their suicides, many of the teens did not appear to be depressed at all. And as we later found out, only 46% of the kids who died by suicide even had a known mental health problem. And, nearly all died violently—by throwing themselves into the train pit (or in one case, over a freeway overpass).

Why? The struggle to understand

Back then I was a stay-at-home mother in Palo Alto: a “soccer mom,” as people called me and other women-with-children of my generation. Now I am a lifestyle psychiatrist in the greater Los Angeles area who works with suicidal teens (and adults) every single day. But I am still confused by what happened with the teen train track suicides in Palo Alto—first in 2009-2010, again in 2013-14, and yet again in 2015-16. The spate of adolescent suicides-by-train during those years was so puzzling at the time that researchers at Stanford and across the country set right in to work. What they found, though, was surprising: suicide is not related to higher income nor to membership in upper socioeconomic classes. That is, spoiled teens from wealthy suburban enclaves are not more likely to take their own lives. Indeed, what the researchers found was unfortunately that no data set was found to correlate neatly with the sudden upwelling of these teens’ suicides. (Yes, they found that being bullied, using alcohol or drugs, and recently coming out of the closet correlated with suicide in general, but not with these teens’ suicides. These teens were not among those.)

So why did the Palo Alto teen suicides happen? To my astonishment, very recently, one of my own kids confessed that they also considered jumping onto the tracks at that time. In fact, they thought about it a lot, nearly every day, and sometimes all day. It struck him or her as the perfect solution to the “toxic culture” at that time in Palo Alto, some elements of which they believe were:

  1. SAT scores. Even if you got nearly perfect scores, you were still only in the top one quarter of the student body there.
  2. Facebook. At first, there was the euphoria of people accepting your “friend” invitations, but eventually, you ended up watching those “friends” go on their amazing vacations all over the world or to their exciting parties with also popular friends, while you stayed at home and/or weren’t invited. Additionally, you had the joy of your social skills being objectively quantified by “likes,” which unfortunately became increasingly rare.
  3. Video games. You could earn rapid-fire big wins in gaming, but life was painfully difficult, slow, unrewarding, and boring in comparison.
  4. Pornography. Some teens came to feel that it was their right to have sex with attractive others at a young age, but that actually didn’t happen . . . at all, ever (“as if!”).
  5. Stanford. Some parents my kids knew had the attitude: “If you don’t get into Stanford, you’ll end up flipping burgers somewhere.” The parents in another friend’s family recited a similar mantra: “If you don’t get into Stanford, you’ll end up pumping gas.”

The high-pressure culture was unbearable. It necessitated what has been called “Duck Syndrome,” in which one must put on the appearance of gliding effortlessly along, while one is in fact paddling frantically beneath the surface, and inwardly sinking down, down, down, and drowning, emotionally. My own kid did such a good job at this that even I didn’t realize the full extent to which he/she was suffering.

So why, again, did the suicides happen? The short answer is: We don’t entirely know. Was it the increase in cell phone use starting in 2007? Was it the increase in social media use around the same time? Was it the increase in videogame playing? We know that all of these things are associated with increased rates of depression (though not suicide). Or, could some other factor account for the suicides-by-train? 

Anomalies—and the things we can’t know

Questions linger. Theories abound. For me, grappling with the incomprehensible tragedy of all those suicides—and the utter strangeness of them—I’ve wondered whether something else might be at work. I recently read a book about hypnosis, Secret, Don’t Tell, by the late Carla Emery, which is available only on her family’s still-extant website. It got me thinking: What happened in Palo Alto, in three waves, doesn’t sound to me like a copycat phenomenon so much as a hypnotic phenomenon. Could that have been a factor? 

There are questions we can’t answer, and things we can’t know. But the fact is: kids who aren’t depressed should not be abruptly committing suicide. 

Another fact is: kids should not be flinging themselves into train-track pits, even if they are considering suicide. According to online statistics accessed Sept. 1 from CDC.gov, the chief means of suicide are: firearms, drug overdoses, car accidents, diseases, fires, cutting, drowning, and so on. Nowhere on the list is flinging oneself onto train tracks. Many people assume that these were “copycat” suicides, but is that a reasonable assumption? Because someone I know throws him or herself under an approaching train, am I going to copy that behavior, even if I’m not depressed? We know that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are in fact “contagious” to a certain degree, but to that degree?

And how were the families involved able to cope with what happened? Speaking from the experience of my family: at first we were in successive waves of shock, then we cried and grieved for quite some time, and then eventually, we moved on. We had no choice but to move on, given the fast pace of life in Silicon Valley. In time, as events similar to Palo Alto’s suicides-by-train became more and more prevalent, we enshrined them in our memories as—though still very painful—somewhat normal. It’s a permanently sad spot in my own and in my three children’s recollections of our Palo Alto lives. 

And now, teen suicide actually is “normal,” or at least “common.” It is not really even considered especially newsworthy. As noted earlier, 22% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide last year, and 18% made a suicide plan. The criterion for admission to an inpatient psychiatric unit is suicidality with a plan. And yet, clearly we can’t install an inpatient unit in every high school across America to accommodate the 18% of our 16 million high school students who need help. We simply don’t have the resources. As of 2016, we child and adolescent psychiatrists are only about 8,000 in number.

So what can we do now, given the reality of limited professional help, to ensure that we can decrease the number of our teens dying by suicide? As caregivers,  we can step up. We can work to create a physically and emotionally supportive infrastructure in your home.

The full lifestyle approach

How to do this? As a lifestyle psychiatrist who looks at the whole picture of human living, I can’t recommend this approach enough. Lifestyle psychiatry is a branch of lifestyle medicine—which is now a board-certified field, with information and materials available on the American College of Lifestyle Medicine—that is directed toward promoting not only physical, but also mental health. It encompasses six domains or “pillars,” all of which are backed by substantial scientific evidence demonstrating their efficacy: nutrition, detox, exercise, sleep hygiene, emotional connectedness, and stress reduction. “Lifestyle” anything might sound expensive, but it isn’t. Without doing a deep-dive into all of the evidence, the nutshell version of the guidelines in each of these domains is as follows: 

For nutrition, it’s the whole food plant-based diet, preferably 100% organic, non-GMO certified, and also hand-washed. There is no substitute for clean, wholesome, real food, because toxicities and deficiencies can both cause and/or contribute to depression.

For detox, it’s not only the elimination of illicit drugs, but also the elimination of legal drugs like cannabis wax, vape pen, cannabis edibles, and even common household toxins, such as room “fresheners,” outgassing chemicals under the sink and in the laundry room, pesticides in the garage, and any toxic soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics that come into direct contact with the body. 

For exercise, the recommendation for teens is 300 minutes each week, at least half of which should be moderate to vigorous. This is because exercise is one very powerful way to detox from the flood of toxic exposures in modern life. 

For sleep, between eight and eleven hours of restorative sleep are recommended for teenagers. Sleep hygiene can be used to ensure that that goal is met. A reduction in school responsibilities—through a 504 Plan or an IEP at school—is another way to accomplish this goal. 

For connectedness, it’s really the depth of relationships more than the number of relationships that counts, but developing at least one or two deeply positive emotional relationships—at home and at school—is critical. Parents are responsible for ensuring that their kids can have friends over to the home. You must take full responsibility for doing that. To kids, connectedness looks like “popularity,” but as adults, we realize that most of what popularity is is ourselves, the parents, engineering it all from behind the scenes.      

For stress reduction, developing a daily meditation practice, whether it’s a moving meditation or a sitting one, is a good habit. Making sure that your kids have down-time from electronics, such as a no-phone dinner policy, and a no-phone-at-night policy, is also highly advisable.

Besides lifestyle psychiatry, there are many other alternative approaches to helping teens in psychiatric distress: to name just one, Dr. James Greenblatt’s nutritional model. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also released a document “Guidance on Community Mental Health Services,” that calls for a new paradigm in mental health treatment, from one that is over-reliant on psychotropic drugs and includes coercive elements, to one that is holistic, person-centered, rights-based, and recovery-focused. The WHO document describes in detail several such models for mental health care. These and other new approaches to teen mental health may not reverse the self-esteem deficits experienced by Palo Alto kids. They may not reverse the overall impression of those teens that life is difficult and boring, lonely, competitive, and overall hopeless. But they are indeed the best defense against those feelings.

In my own practice, I see about 60 teens each week. What seems to help the most is the emotional connectedness part. Bolstering the connection between the teen and a parent can make all the difference in the world. It’s the best antidote to stress and trauma that we know of. 

And it’s my personal hope that you, as a caregiver, will step up—even if your teen has been brainwashed that parents are square and that the generation gap is insurmountable, and even if your teen appears not to want to connect with you. Often, they have no one else.

In my own home (now in greater Los Angeles), I have to say that, though my three teens survived growing up in Palo Alto in the 2010s, I can’t say that they all thrived. Far from it. Years later, a couple of them are still living at or near home, and they still have not completely recovered from the trauma they experienced during their high school years. 

They are both finally on their way, though, and I am so grateful for that. May other teens find similar paths forward.

***

Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

***

Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.

Previous articleForced Hospitalization: For Kids and Adults, It Makes No Sense
Next articleLittle Giant by Roo Panes
Cheryl Green
Dr. Cheryl L. Green is a lifestyle psychiatrist based in Southern California and the author of "Heal Your Daughter: How Lifestyle Psychiatry Can Save Her from Depression, Cutting, and Suicidal Thoughts" and "The Heal Your Daughter Workbook: Six Weeks to Feeling Good with Lifestyle Psychiatry." Green works part time at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, and part time in her own private practice based in the greater Los Angeles area. She holds degrees from Harvard University (A.B.), Princeton University (Ph.D.), and Stanford University School of Medicine (M.D.). She is board- certified in Psychiatry, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Lifestyle Medicine. Her passion is inspiring others to achieve vibrant physical and mental health.

8 COMMENTS

  1. As an educator, I focus on creating schools based on connection, community, meaning, and purpose. We also educate students on the importance of healthy diet, sleep, exercise, and avoiding toxic substances and activities (eg digital addictions), but the most powerful element consists of 2-4 hours per day in conversations of various types.

    Report comment

  2. “A teenage girl was crawling on all fours toward the train track pit, then back away from the tracks, then back to the tracks, then away from the tracks, then back again. Back and forth, back and forth”. Truly a tragedy beyond heartbreaking to contemplate.

    However, this sequence of movement, combined with the violence of a rail track death; Might suggest the possibility of AKATHISIA? (It is recognised that it may not, and/or this may have been considered and not written about).

    IN ANY SUICIDE; – without detailed knowledge of all prescription drugs which may induce akathisia, disinhibition, emotional blunting; and hence apparent suicide, we are left asking: –

    Was this tragic situation suicide, or might SSRI/SNRI/Psychptropic induced ADVERSE DRUG REACTION (ADR) have caused involuntary intoxication? It is recognised that many other prescription drugs can cause akathisia.

    If aspirations to decrease avoidable suicide are to be successful, surely it is necessary to identify and record medication use, dose change, drug change. and drug withdrawal in detail on each and every occasion?

    Report comment

  3. I am one of the kids who drove just north of the Castro Caltrain station (2009-10) and tried to get the courage to stand in front of the train. I have vivid memories sitting in my car crying, and asking myself why I wasn’t as brave as the other teenagers. I didn’t go to Paly, but another high-achieving high school close by. Thank you for bringing attention to this tragic phenomena, and for suggesting a connection to the current greater youth mental health crisis. Trends (good and bad) have historically started in Scillicon Valley/The Bay, and slowly spread to the rest of the country. While I’m glad congress is finally tackling social media and its toxic effects on kids, a more in depth look needs to be taken at these deaths in Palo Alto. There is more at play here, and I fear it’s many fundamental, lucrative, parts of our greater culture.

    Report comment

  4. Instead of hypnosis and non Gmo food, please consider the hyper competitive, cultureless corporate environment of silicon valley. Stressful, perfectionist, performative life just to get ahead in a hollow and pointless system. All about trying to look good to impress someone else.

    Social media and technology also factor in and this place is the heart of those things. This region is the cultural vanguard of whats to come if others follow the same economic and technological trends.

    Report comment

  5. In my training, the common denominator of any inclination towards apathy and death in an otherwise healthy young person is called “suppression.” The sources of suppressive messages and attitudes that may surround a child can be many and varied. But the intention is always similar: To stop the activities of a bright and alive being.

    The first and most pervasive suppressive message that we all get today is: You are nothing but an animal, a body. In other words, the invalidation of Spirit. (Validating Spirit would be a message like: “You are an immortal spiritual being.”) We don’t even have to get into whether we really ARE spiritual beings or not. All research demonstrates that when the aliveness, creativity and “spark” of a person is invalidated, that person is reduced towards a condition of apathy (depression).

    In my mind, all the other messages a person gets (young people in particular) that will trouble or depress them are related to this one basic suppressive message.

    The task of the true healer (in the field of mental health) is to locate and negate all these suppressive messages and to strengthen the being (beyond merely getting them to “grow up” although a stronger being will appear more “adult”) to laugh (scoff?) at such messages and refuse to become the effect of them.

    Report comment

  6. I was from a nearby school and a member of this generation. I took a specialized class that was hosted at Gunn High School. It was the ultimate stereotype of a dehumanizing high achieving elite school, with every volume knob ratcheted up to 11.

    There was a lot of all or nothing thinking. Adolescents have limited understanding of the breadth of the world and scope of possibilities ahead of them. The academic milieu of that place fostered a harshly hierarchical culture where many begin to believe that your choices now made you excellent or a failure in the future, and being “okay” was not a possibility. You could not take a break, you could not burn out, you could not be merely good enough, even small mistakes could lead to huge penalties.

    There are brutal numbers behind the unserious and cruel propaganda of “doctor or burger flipper” flung carelessly at children with limited exposure to the real world. Minimum wage was 8.25. That neighborhood was borderline unlivable at a 100k salary. Even if you wanted to divest from that place, what were your economic options for empowerment, as a 17-year old trapped in a suburban cage full of invisible chains, both emotional and material: where it costs 7 weeks of honest work to afford 1 month of living expenses? Even mentally playing out the fantasy of self-determination engenders feelings of despair. So you play the game, or else.

    There was nowhere to turn for help. The cold peer competitiveness encouraged by the adults in charge could easily stifle even the deep human instincts children have towards friendship and cooperation. Many of them had no adult in their life they can turn to to express vulnerability or honest negative feelings. Suicide prevention involved and still involves incarceration, police and handcuffs, and the destruction of your social reputation, therefore your academic prospects, therefore your future among the elites, therefore you will be relegated to immobile, choking poverty with no light at the end of the tunnel.

    Even barring the escape of suicide, how does a child survive a world like that:a distorted world of propaganda that enshrines the myth of academic meritocracy as the ultimate determinant of human worth, a world of increasing systemic violence and contempt and devaluation towards natural human fallibility, a world of such stark wealth inequality, of deep social and emotional suppression, that measures the humanities in terms of being lesser tools for winning at the rigged game of our neoliberal labor market, that architects such heavy deterrents against natural adolescent instincts for experimentation, rebellion, mistakes, pressure release, existential exploration?

    I’ll tell you how they “survive”. They cling to the vine even as their souls wither. I watched many of these children continue to breath and exist into adulthood: hollowed out, excellent corpses who have amounted to everything and nothing.

    Report comment

LEAVE A REPLY