News

Family: Student had suffered from depression

Academic pressure not a factor in Gunn senior's death, parents say

The parents of a Palo Alto student who died by suicide on Jan. 24 have released a statement regarding his death. The teen had attended Gunn High School and was in his senior year.

"This has been a really hard time for us. Our son struggled with depression, and he made it clear that the cause was not due to academic pressure at Gunn," the parents stated in an email.

"We're deeply saddened, and while we appreciate the various outreach and messages we've received, we'd like some time to mourn within our family and ask that the community please wait until after the services on Sunday to contact us."

The Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office has not released the identity of the teen, and the Weekly is respecting the family's request not to publish his name at this time.

Help is available

Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal is urged to call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can also call 1-855-278-4204.

Lists of Palo Alto school and community resources are available on the school district's Health Services page and the Counseling Services page.

A list of local mental health resources is available here.

Read more: How to help those in crisis

Comments

25 people like this
Posted by paly_parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 28, 2015 at 12:02 am

paly_parent is a registered user.

Studies have shown that 8% of youths aged 12-17 experience a major depressive episode. Fortunately, only a small fraction of them go on to commit suicide. Since depression is so prevalent and potentially deadly in young people with limited life experiences and coping skills, it's essential that our community, and particularly our schools, work with young people to learn to recognize and cope with overwhelming depression.


8 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jan 28, 2015 at 7:29 am

Alphonso is a registered user.

"it's essential that our community, and particularly our schools, work with young people to learn to recognize and cope with overwhelming depression."

Do the parents have a role in this? It might also be wise to examine the specific reasons why a number of students have taken their own lives before coming up with solutions.


38 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Dear Palo Alto Onliners,

I hope I'm making this comment with due and deep respect for the family and the terrible distress I can imagine that they're having to endure. My heart goes out to them and I am very sorry for their loss.

It's impossible for me to know why they made this announcement, why they wanted the community, through our local newspapers, to know this about their son. [Portion removed.] It's only a guess to think that they very generously wanted to make a contribution to the very difficult, ongoing debate in our city about "the causes of suicide," and whether these should be located somehow in the individual person or in the environment. Our tendency seems to want to be to pick one or the other, rather than to consider how the two might interact.

One reason we've been unable to make any headway in our reflections is that there's a tendency to think in black and white terms, and another reason is that the community, in truth, has an intense wish to argue these matters but no desire at all to actually find anything out. I don't know why this is.

The only, sole, serious, responsible effort to reach any findings—which was the "psychological autopsies" undertaken in 2010 by the District, Project Safety Net, and Dr. Joshi and his colleagues at the Stanford Medical School—has turned out not to be really so very responsible, has been underfunded and understaffed from the very first, remains uncompleted after half a decade, and the public shows no sign of caring about it one way or the other.

Our city has made no other attempt either to make or to commission an epidemiological study of our teenagers suicides, despite our terrible epidemic. This belies our image of ourselves, I believe, as an intelligent community and one that cares about its teens. We cannot claim to be a community that is seriously concerned to know why our kids have died.

In view of this, and because we're then left to our own devices to make random judgments based on rumor, fragmented information, and announcements such as this one, our thinking lacks depth and consistency.

I think it's important, in view of this announcement, and its circulation for the public to think about, to point out emphatically that it may be difficult for a human being in great despair or distress [portion removed] to know with any clarity the causes of his despair and distress, or to sort out the external world from the internal. A disturbed mind, a mind in deep pain, is often not an accurate or comprehensive one.

[Portion removed.]

I do understand that the "reassurances" that mental illness may be our culprit may be well-meant attempts to make us less worried about our schools and our own contribution to the nature of those schools, but I think these attempts may lead us astray.

And in any case, as the greatest novelists and observers teach us, there is never a bright line between mental health and mental illness. Even "normal" people are capable of magical thinking, imagining things that aren't there (as we tend to do with other people's motives), focusing on single realities at the expense of others, and dehumanizing entire classes of people.

Portion removed.]

My condolences go the family, and I hope that as time passes we somehow can learn from this terrible loss, this further blow to our reeling city.

Sincerely,
Marc Vincenti


12 people like this
Posted by concerned resident
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 28, 2015 at 2:23 pm

concerned resident is a registered user.

I would like to thank Marc Vincenti's for his insightful comments. I whole heartedly agree with them, particularly those regarding mental illness. It seems to me that people who have raised the issue of mental illness in the context of the suicides in Palo Alto may be intentionally or unintentionally diverting attention away from the necessary work in identifying the causal environmental factors that could be directly contributing to suicides. Mental illness, like most other medical conditions, are strongly influenced by environmental factors. Depression in particular often has strong direct causal links to stress or difficult situations that individuals find themselves in. In other words, mental illness occurs in a social context, and there may be very pertinent environmental factors in this social context that is creating a higher prevalence of mental illness and/or greater rates of suicide in our community. The fact that most if not all cases of suicide has involved students with mental illness should not absolve us from the important task of identifying the contributing factors.

While we should obviously respect and take in the statement by the student's parents, I also agree with the sentiment that individuals in the throes of mental illness often lack the necessary wherewithal to understand how or why they are in that predicament. So there should be a concerted effort to conduct a thorough analyses of all the recent suicides by professionals to see if some causal factors could be identified.

I see that Mr. Vincenti is a teacher at Gunn. His thoughtful and insightful comments suggests that he may have valuable observations that could help to shed light on the current crisis and I encourage him to share his thoughts with the rest of us if he were so inclined.


7 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2015 at 3:29 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Dear Concerned Resident (and other readers),

I'm deeply grateful for your post, and would like to ask you to please keep contributing to our city's discussion; it will help.

In response to your last paragraph, let me say that I'm the co-founder, along with Gunn sophomore Martha Cabot, of a community movement to bring a more humane and forgiving life to our high school.

It's called "Save the 2,008" and our website is:

www.savethe2008.com

The Weekly has written about us at:

www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2014/11/19/save-the-2008-gunn-student-former-teacher-call-for-more-balanced-academic-culture

In addition, the Weekly has published some dozen letters or op-eds I've written, in the past 4 years.

Thank you for your interest and the time you took, and especially for your comments on the complexities of illness and its contexts, the lone sufferer and the world around him or her.

Sincerely,

Marc Vincenti


22 people like this
Posted by parent2
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 28, 2015 at 5:50 pm

parent2 is a registered user.

I am so sorry for this family's tragic loss. No one can really empathize enough with this terrible terrible sorrow.

I always feel that there is a serious disconnect when people like Dr. Joshi or the school district say "stress doesn't cause suicide, it's all about depression." But stress and sleep deprivation are definitively causes of depression. And certain people are genetically predisposed to become depressed due to stress. Thus, just because some kids may be under stress and not get depressed (but just not be very happy) others will become clinically depressed as a result due to their genetic vulnerability. This is science people.

So what is the point here? Don't we want to prevent DEPRESSION which Dr. Joshi keeps telling us is the cause of more than half of suicides?

On that note, sleep deprivation is a well-understood cause of teen depression. Isn't it a bit ironic that the district is lecturing students to get more sleep while assigning them so much homework (even to the point of breaking its own policy) as to make it impossible?

Stress dramatically increases the risk of mental illness including depression. Sleep deprivation is linked to depression in adolsecents. Does Dr. Joshi think we should just keep stressing out our students, wait until someone is depressed, and then try to locate that needle in the haystack and put it on meds? Shouldn't we ALSO try to prevent the stress from causing depression in the first place?

This is stupid, They want us to discount the evidence of our own eyes and abandon reason common sense and science just so that teachers don't have to assign less homework.

Don't say "it wasn't pressure, it was depression" when pressure increases the risk of depression. Good lord what a sad farce.


11 people like this
Posted by Mikey Palo Alto
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 28, 2015 at 8:39 pm

Mikey Palo Alto is a registered user.

"Mental illness" or depression can be situational and that situation can be stress. They are not mutually exclusive. We are all dysfunctional in our own way. Blaming the current contagion on depression is skirting the issue. Depression is the logical response to events of this magnitude and that depression can ripple through a close-knit community in the same way women who live together can become biologically synchronized in their cycles.

We'll be scratching our heads for a long time if we focus on trying to find the cause of this epidemic because the contagion has become the cause. Let's instead aim to remain mindful of what triggers our sadness, and realize that 99% of the time those triggers are caused by insignificant details that aren't worthy enough for us to feel that bad.

"Save the 2008" probably doesn't have all the answers, but it is at least a list of actionable proposals, which is more than I've seen from the district or the school. Superintendent McGee's pallid email over the weekend made me want to cry in its inadequacy and lack of soul.

It's time for a reset.


5 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2015 at 9:23 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Dear Palo Alto Onliners,

I'm told that tomorrow morning (Thursday, Jan. 29th), on KQED radio with Michael Krasny as host, the 9-10 am hour of Forum will be devoted to Palo Alto, Gunn High School, last night's School Board meeting, student well-being, and our crisis.

On-air guests, I'm told, will include Superintendent Max McGee, pediatrician Meg Durbin, Gunn sophomore Chloe Sorenson, and Gunn sophomore Martha Cabot, co-founder of "Save the 2,008."

Sincerely,
Marc Vincenti
co-founder, "Save the 2008"
www.savethe2008.com


8 people like this
Posted by scoops
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 28, 2015 at 9:28 pm

scoops is a registered user.

I wonder if the student's parents released their email today because of a posting yesterday on Esther Wojcicki's Huffington Post blog. Today, Ms. Wojcicki has removed it and has issued an apology and a clarification. I am sure Ms. Woicicki's intention was to offer a PAUSD student's insight into the effects of parental pressure. However this letter reflected a one sided view by one very angry student. Unfortunately, it was the wrong time and the wrong message.

To quote Ms. Wojcicki's blog…." I want to make it clear that I never intended to accuse the parents of being unloving parents or create more problems for them or for the school community. I regret that they interpreted it that way. The letter I included was written by a girl at Palo Alto High who was writing about her own struggles; it is representative of the struggles of many of the students in high-performing districts in the US. The problem is not isolated to Palo Alto. It is something we need to work on as a nation. "

It is my opinion that depression is not a well understood diagnosis, I believe that stress can play a role. It's imperative we open our minds and consider depression in the broader perspective.


2 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2015 at 10:30 pm

Fred is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by resident3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 11:02 pm

resident3 is a registered user.

I am also very sorry for this family's loss.

Fred,

Do you have any students in High School right now? Most everyone understands why homework (the unnecessary kind), "rigor" (the unnecessary kind), and cell phones are an issue.

Promoting a healthy balance in al these is critical to student well being and we should be grateful that people are willing to speak up about constructive approaches.

I wish the block schedule would be added to everyone's agenda. Having "out of sight out of mind" for some classes is conducive to many benefits in learning as well.


28 people like this
Posted by Be Kind PA
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jan 29, 2015 at 1:00 am

Be Kind PA is a registered user.

As someone who many years ago suffered from severe depression (to the point of serious suicidal thoughts), I would like to share my experience. While I may have had a genetic predisposition to depression, I was a very happy, successful person well into adulthood (mid 30s). It was only when a significant, traumatic event occurred that I spiraled into depression.

Depression isn't "being bummed." Depression is hurting so badly inside that you just want the pain to stop. I became suicidal not because I wanted to die, but because I couldn't find any other way to make the pain stop.

For me, some really awful people became larger than life, they over-shadowed everything good and made me feel like, "who wants to live in this terrible world with such horrible people?" I wasn't able to see what was good - logic was not possible. It was only with medication that I regained my sense of reason and logic.

People, please do not judge others - you cannot possibly walk in their shoes. Please be kind to others, give them the benefit of the doubt, and strive for understanding instead of winning.

The entire Palo Alto community has become a "me first" society, and every one of us owns a part of that.

The difference starts with each of us being kinder and more giving, and ensuring we are not the cause of a fragile person being pushed over the edge.

My compassion and sympathy go to the family of this beloved young man.


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