The appearance in a national publication of a now-familiar story that of a community, Palo Alto, grappling with youth suicide has elicited strong reaction locally, particularly from students, alumni, school district leadership and local mental health professionals.
The Atlantic magazine posted online Monday evening the cover story for its December issue, titled "The Silicon Valley Suicides," about the recent teen suicide clusters in Palo Alto. The Atlantic is not the first national media outlet to cover the topic in the past year, with publications ranging from The New York Times to VICE.com writing their own stories.
Students, alumni and parents flocked to social media to share their perspectives in the hours following the online posting. One Palo Alto High School alumna created a video chatroom and shared on a 2,700-plus member Facebook group times she would be available for anyone who wanted or needed to talk.
Gunn High School student Shawna Chen, editor in chief of student newspaper, The Oracle, posted her own response on Facebook, writing that she was "disappointed and saddened by the story because it does not comprehensively reflect who we are as a community."
Gunn students are planning a student-only forum for Thursday night called, "Titan Strong: A Conversation about Moving Forward."
Meg Durbin, a pediatric and internal medicine doctor at Palo Alto Medical Foundation, quickly submitted a response to The Atlantic that had been carefully drafted over the last week by a team of mental health professionals and school district and city officials. (It was also shared with district parents in a message sent by Superintendent Max McGee on Tuesday.) Durbin is also co-founder of a collaborative of health professionals, the HEARD Alliance, addressing youth well-being.
Durbin and others said they were concerned that the article violated established media guidelines on how to report on suicide, such as avoiding descriptions of methods of suicide, not using evocative images and avoiding "glorification" of the teens by using their names.
Some Palo Alto students and recent alumni described the article as "triggering," "sensationalist" and an inaccurate representation of the community they know.
"All I really get from this article (besides redundant sensationalist writing) are generalizations, groundlessly directed blame, and insensitivity for the subject," said Tatiana Boyle, a Gunn 2014 graduate. "I see no new light shed on the topic."
Grace Kim, who graduated from Paly in 2015, said: "To reiterate (to) everyone from home: We're more than this. It's hard to see your home make headlines this way."
Others said they they thought the article was straightforward and thorough and were wary of giving it too much weight. Some had more mixed feelings: There were some problematic characterizations of complex mental health issues and misrepresentations of the community but also details that resonated with them.
"It's important to remember that we are diverse, and just because your experience doesn't necessarily match with the article or your experience does match with the article, it doesn't mean that that's the same for everyone," said Lisa Hao, a Gunn senior. The community should be mindful of this, she said, when talking about the article, and be careful not to "invalidate others' experiences."
Grace Park, a Gunn senior and the school's Board of Education student representative, said she and other students expected the article would offer "something new, some new insight, something meaningful that would contribute to the discussion."
"I don't want to say that the entire article is wrong because it's not. It's a very well-researched article. I just feel that that article had the chance to maybe bring up something new. ... You have a platform on which to shed new light on it, shed perspective especially as someone who's an outsider and is a parent to someone in high school," Park said. "You have that chance and that opportunity, and I feel like it was misused."
Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann, who sent her own response to parents and students on Tuesday evening, echoed that sentiment in an interview: "We were hoping that this would be something more relevant, and we were disappointed that it wasn't."
McGee said pieces of the story were "uplifting and positive" such as that of a former Paly student, Taylor Chiu, who tells the story of her own suicide attempt and recovery but that the timing, close to the anniversaries of last year's first deaths by suicides, was "insensitive ... to put it mildly."
Julie Lythcott-Haims a parent in the district, former Stanford University dean of freshman and author of the recent book "How to Raise an Adult" posted a link to The Atlantic story on the book's Facebook page, calling the article "piercing and poignant." Rosin quotes from "How to Raise an Adult" in the story.
"The writer, Hanna Rosin, says when she tried to get to the heart of it, it was still elusive," Lythcott-Haims wrote. "Here's what I think. I think we - in our homes, schools, and community - have to value our kids as humans, not because of some GPA or score. Too many of us don't. We keep aiming for the latter, hoping ours can handle it all. We need to boycott the system - the mindset - that says the very purpose of childhood is to gather as much accomplishment as possible."
School board member Ken Dauber, who was interviewed for The Atlantic story, said focusing on the impact of any particular article becomes a "distraction" from the core issue the community has been trying to address: "whether we're doing everything that we can be doing" to support students' mental health and well-being.
Hanna Rosin posted her own response on Monday evening, writing that the community's fearful preparation for the story some of which was done before top school officials and mental health professionals had read advance copies served as "a measure of just how sensitive the community is."
"Nobody in the middle of a tragedy likes to be scrutinized, particularly by an outsider," Rosin wrote. "The only benefit to that scrutiny is airing some of the issues everyone is thinking about anyway. Our hope is that the story will spur a useful discussion, among educators, mental health experts, and teenagers."
Below that, The Atlantic posted Durbin's response and invited readers to submit their own reactions, some of which will also be posted.
Durbin, who read an advance copy of the story last week, defended the community's preparation for the article's publication.
"My thought is we're sensitive, but I think we're also very thoughtful," she said. "It's not an inappropriate hypersensitivity. It's a thoughtful response to media based on our experience and media guidelines and knowing the story didn't accurately portray what's happening in the community or even the community feeling."
In reaction to the article, youth suicide-prevention collaborative Project Safety Net announced on Tuesday that a "good portion" of a regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday would be given over a "special" discussion of The Atlantic piece "as well as best practices on messaging in regards to suicide prevention and in particular communities in contagion," an email from the collaborative states.
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can also call 855-278-4204.
A list of community resources, compiled by the school district, is also available here.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture the numerous voices, opinions and our news coverage on teen well-being.