Off Deadline: 'Contagious hope' is powerful antidote to 'suicide contagion'

Teacher, parent join discussion with author on new book focusing about youth suicide clusters in Palo Alto

A three-person panel speaking in late June to a modest audience at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park presented some simple-sounding but challenging approaches to Palo Alto's nagging fear of being a "suicide contagion" capital.

The panel focused not on suicide but on "positive contagions" that are as (or more) powerful than negative contagions — including a "contagion of hope" that leads people to personal happiness, positive relationships and redefining "success," long a driving force in Palo Alto and the broader Silicon Valley region.

The "suicide" label was applied to Palo Alto nationally after several Gunn High School students died by suicide on the train tracks over a several-year period. There had been two earlier train suicides of Palo Alto High School students and others dating back decades. Suicides from other causes were not publicly known.

But the relatively tight cluster of Gunn students grabbed attention nationally and triggered a deep level of soul-searching among students, parents, teachers, school officials and citizens. The immediate responses were to create a Project Safety Net group and install "track watchers" at the rail crossings, specifically the East Meadow crossing. Deeper responses included programs at Gunn to encourage students and teachers to be more concerned about and caring toward each other.

The Kepler's panel launched a new book by Palo Alto resident Lee Daniel Kravetz, titled: "Strange Contagion: Inside the surprising science of infectious behaviors and viral emotions and what they tell us about ourselves." It was his first presentation of what will be a national book tour for the book. Kravetz had a career as a freelance science writer and has a master's degree in psychology on top of a bachelor's degree in journalism. An earlier book, published in 2014, is "Supersurvivors: The surprising link between suffering and success," which he co-authored.

Kravetz moved to Palo Alto in 2009. At Kepler's he led off by reading from the beginning of his new book: an account of how he and his wife, expecting their first child, were unpacking in their new second-story apartment when a commotion of sirens and jammed traffic outside caught their attention. It was the first of the Gunn suicides, they discovered when they later checked an online news story.

The other Kepler's panelists were Palo Altan Julie Lythcott-Haims, who had children in Palo Alto schools and served as the panel's moderator; and Ronen "Roni" Habib, who teaches social studies and technology at Gunn. Following several suicides, Habib created a new "positive psychology" class — an approach that now is spreading nationally with teens, teachers and parents through an organization he also founded, EQ Schools, featured in 2015 in a TED Talk.

Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, is widely known for her book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break free of the overparenting trap and prepare your kid for success." She opened with recalling the reaction in Palo Alto to the suicides, noting that while "no one was trying to be sensational about the tragedies, everyone was hungry to try to figure out what we can do" about the then-pervasive "feeling of hopelessness and helplessness" that swept through the community.

Kravetz said the suicides hit him hard, and his science-writer curiosity kicked in. He met Habib, who also was expecting a new baby, and they connected with a shared desire to do something effective to combat the hopelessness/helplessness root of self-destruction.

As he looked into the research underlying the psychology of contagious beliefs and patterns, he discovered the highly contagious nature of negative beliefs that grow into self-fulfilling prophecies. And he delved into how those could be countered, discovering research that showed positive perceptions and beliefs once implemented in a social setting can be as or more contagious than the destructive negative beliefs.

Habib, who said he taught economics at Gunn for nearly a decade, created the positive-psychology class as an elective with that hope that perhaps 25 students might sign up for it. Instead, 107 students responded eagerly.

The class, he said, focuses on encouraging students to openly share with others their inner feelings about their character generally and about their personal struggles about themselves, self-perceptions, bodies and life.

Others in the circle "feel honored" by the sharing "and they begin to open up and share," he said.

"This is the most important thing I've ever done as an educator," he said. And the follow-up with teachers nationally and internationally is essential, as teachers need to learn to be open, sharing and vulnerable to connect effectively with their students.

The panelists agreed that "emotional intelligence" should be considered as important as academic performance and that "success" should be redefined as being more than financial.

People need to learn how to create a "contagion of happiness," they agreed.

Citing research by psychologist Martin Seligman, considered the father of positive psychology and the theory of "learned helplessness," Habib listed the five things needed for someone to achieve balance in life, under the acronym of PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments. "The most important by far is relationships, which unfortunately are becoming more and more elusive in our busy, tech-heavy lives."

"We can feel helpless today in the face of certain stressors, in the face of pressure, certain definitions of success," Lythcott-Haims summed up in "takeaway" comments.

"We can feel stressed out and helpless because the robots are coming to take our jobs, and artificial intelligence and all. ... There's a lot that we can be afraid of, and it can make us feel helpless in our own lives. But we are not. We all need to know that we matter: We need to matter to ourself. We need to know that we matter to one another.

"And when we can show someone else that they matter, that we literally see them and give a darn about them, we can be the interrupters that you're talking about — we can be the solution we're looking for."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at


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11 people like this
Posted by R. Winslow
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 15, 2017 at 10:16 am

If this topic is primarily being focused on the teen suicides of late in PA, perhaps these tragedies can be directly attributed to certain parental pressures relentlessly forcing academic success and vocational directives upon their children. No child should grow up under those kinds of traumatic conditions. Advanced Placement is fine but let's not get carried away.

It doesn't take a psychologist to note that some kids can't handle the pressure and thus seek out ways to escape it. Having a well-rounded activity base is just as important as a sound education and kids should be entitled to both as outside fun provides a balance to books and classroom time IMHO.

A high-school adolescent is still a child in most respects. Creating a world within where they want to end it all is clearly and purely the fault of the parents. A happy and fulfilled C student is still better than a deceased one with an A+ average and countless letters of acceptance to prestigious universities.

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Posted by R.Winslow
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 15, 2017 at 10:18 am

Correction: Crescent Park resident

2 people like this
Posted by A Cassandra
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2017 at 12:07 pm

The speakers make some excellent points, and I especially commend Roni Habbib for creating such an effective program.

What I have to say next is not a refutation of these kinds of efforts, which do make a difference, so please don't feel it in any way invalidates the positive messages. What I am about to bring up is more like the ice below the surface, the rest of the story. How people respond if a ship is in icy waters or hits an iceberg is desperately important to whether they survive, but equally important is to ensure that ships don't hit icebergs again or that they are constructed differently so they don't sink if they do. All are important.

Eight or nine years ago, I brought a concern to a school principle. My concern was that if the conditions of concern were not fixed, we could have a depression epidemic in our schools, maybe even suicides. Worse, if the underlying conditions were not corrected, subsequent soul searching and efforts by the community would help for awhile, but would not be enough forever and the despression and even suicides could happen again. Another concern is that is demoralizing, as people start to point fingers at each other, even though, without such underlying conditions, everything they did would otherwise be more permanently effective (or perhaps never necessary in the first place, at least to prevent the extreme outcome).

I am not claiming that as any kind of proof, however, the prediction of a major depression epidemic (worse at Gunn for specific reasons) and an echo suicide cluster, in addition to the community response are pretty specific. And yes, I have witnesses and some written documentation of the predictions.

Here's why I'm bringing this up.

Some of the conditions have been improved, in some ways, without intending it. But overall, because unless the district heeds the warning and starts to address these underlying issues, when the urgency dies down and all the many efforts wane, and conditions worsen again, it will happen again, even if the program and people fundamentally change in all the right ways. There will be even worse recriminations then, and still, the problems will resurge, depression and even possibly suicide. The mind and body are connected, and while it's important and effective to address from the mind perspective, depending on what is going on body-wise, the mind efforts may be less effective than otherwise. (And those who forward the mind approaches would sadly feel they were more, or less, effective based on incomplete information.)

Yes, I just predicted that regardless of what is done with the school program, parental education, etc, unless the underlying factors are addressed, there will be another depression epidemic and possibly more suicides. The time scale will depend on a number of factors, and depend on how well these mind-side efforts continue.

The tragedy here is that the conditions I am bringing up can be entirely fixed for justifiable reasons, with funding already available for those reasons, and with numerous evidence-based benefits beyond that purpose, including benefits to student performance, and student and staff health. I have done everything I could to try to help, really dedicated a few years of my life to it, and got some changes that probably helped some for awhile, but overall won't change the inevitability of future reoccurrence.

It is truly a shame, be ause it makes inevitable the ignoring of such an important message about positive cognitive contagion, or the belief that it isn't as effective as it really is, and the continued furthering of undeserved negativity toward the parent community here. More finger pointing, blame, and the problem not solved. I was sorry to make that prediction then, but did so because the outcome was so unacceptable. If anyone is listening now and willing to act, make your contact available, and your commit,ent clear, and I will make an effort again to give you the evidence and what can be done.

8 people like this
Posted by 16 Year-Old PA Student
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 15, 2017 at 6:32 pm

To kill yourself over something like grades is just plain dumb as well as sad.
Maybe it's a cultural thing? Most of my friends and I are 3.00+ and that's good enough as one's future success is not measured or determined by what you accomplished in high school.

7 people like this
Posted by A Cassandra
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 16, 2017 at 2:35 am

You have a great perspective about what's important. Young people have so many opportunities to make and remake their lives and futures, the traditional measures of "success" in high school are really not that important in the grand scheme of life, they really aren't. Sal Khan of Khan Academy has a great perspective on grades (his analogy about building houses) which is worth looking up as a template for change.

Unfortunately, depression and mental illness are more complicated than that. Someone who is clinically depressed isn't necessarily thinking rationally about stressors. It's so important to know how to help depressed friends or acquaintances to get effective help rather than suffering in silence.

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Posted by attendee
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 17, 2017 at 1:30 pm

I'm not sure why the audience size is described as "modest." I was there and saw a strong turnout--and an audience that stayed all the way through the conversation.

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Posted by fcservices
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 17, 2017 at 1:55 pm

Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley so appreciated the opportunity to be part of this event, which sparked a rich conversation among the panelists and among the audience members, by having information about our individual and family counseling services, LGBTQ youth programming, and domestic violence survivor services, as well as Caminar's residential and crisis services for people with severe mental health needs. Opportunities to engage around mental health topics is vital and chips away at the stigma that too often holds people back from seeking help.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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