CDC releases early findings from youth suicide study | July 15, 2016 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 15, 2016

CDC releases early findings from youth suicide study

Report suggests stronger awareness, school connectedness critical to supporting youth in crisis

by Elena Kadvany

Preliminary findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's epidemiological investigation into youth suicides in Santa Clara County have shed some light on factors — including mental-health issues and problems at school — that played a role in the suicides of Palo Alto teenagers over the past 13 years.

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Staff Writer Elena Kadvany can be emailed at


13 people like this
Posted by Whatever
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 24, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Whatever is a registered user.

Not very informative! Not much the Palo Alto public did not already know.

I appears that because most of the suicides in Palo Altovwere committed in a very public way, on the RR tracks, it only SEEMS like Palo Alto teens kill themselves in greater numbers than elsewhere.

The only thing different about Palo Alto teens who commit suicide compared to teens who do so in other districts is that PA kids tend not to tell anyone of their plan to end their lives.

Not very helpful, really.

22 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2016 at 8:05 am

I don't know why this story was reposted, but people will miss the very helpful comments made by the community after the original story, including by Mark Vincenti. Here is mine:

The greatest factor of the ones the CDC identified (causing mental distress and suicidal thinking in the 30 days prior, see end of report) was physical illness including breathing problems that led to missed work/school. Physical illness.

Not only is this concerning in terms of how well our district deals with sick students - in my observation, not well - it highlights one of the biggest as yet completely unaddressed but fixable factors. There are proven and well researched ways to reduce illnesses in students and staff, that our district does not yet do.

PAUSD, compared to the other districts, had the largest percentage of kids who checked physical illness as a factor, including breathing problems. Which reminds me, according to the data collected by the National Council on Teacher Quality, the average number of days absent for our teachers makes them "frequently absent". This is a big red warning flag that the physical environment needs consideration, too. The CDC did not seem to have an environmental scientist on the team who could bridge the gap in understanding between mind, body, and environment, and who understands the environmental science.

There are well-researched, proven ways to reduce physical illnesses going around school and absenteeism related to illness. It's not rocket science, there is a huge consensus in environmental science. The EPA publishes a toolkit for schools, that is used by about half the schools in the country, proven to tangibly reduce illnesses and absenteeism among students and teachers, and improve student performance. Our district administration has resisted adopting such best practices, saying that it's "too much paperwork". Studies show that when district administrators are not on board, the adoption of plans is not enough, they aren't usually implemented to good effect. The district needs the support and call from the community to do this. Parent volunteers can make a big difference, too.

Now that we know for sure that physical illness is a major factor, surely we can pull together to accomplish something already specified in the facilities bond (but not done) that is proven to reduce that factor?

Although the EPA's toolkit us designed to help even if districts don't have funds, since the district facilities bond specifications called for improving the environment in just that way, but nothing really was done, if we need funding, it can come from the facilities bond. In many ways, addressing these factors is easier and more straightforward than many of the mental health measures (which needed doing, too, don't get me wrong).

When are we going to start treating our kids like whole people whose minds AND bodies are connected? Our teachers would likely benefit, too.

24 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2016 at 8:33 am


No, Palo Alto teens have had a higher rate of suicide. What was less was suicide ideation.

You have to be a little careful reading too much into comparisons like this. The CDC chose comparison districts that were all more economically and racially diverse. If you looks at other youth safety risk factors like sex/drug use/other delinquency factors, is Palo Alto comparable? I doubt it. What if they compared Palo Alto to Los Atos?

Also, what if Palo Alto is more or less by comparison? Does that really mean it's normal and we can't do anything? First if all, Palo Alto, of all the districts they looked at, had a higher rate of students who were absent due to illness in the 30 days prior (to considering suicide) than any if the other districts, and absence due to illness was by far the biggest of the factors.

It is possible, per consensus level environmental research, to reduce illness-related absenteeism substantially by adopting a well-researched indoor air quality management plan. PAUSD does not do this, and in fact has actively avoided doing this.

Any district can do the same. Have the other districts done this? I doubt it. Palo Alto has some specific conditions that, per research, made for poor indoor air quality, and adding A/C under the circumstances (coincidentally before the clusters at Gunn) likely could have exacerbated it. I say could have, but really a very knowledgeable environmental scientist should have been made part of the study, since those factors are now shown to be an issue.

Asthma is nationally the top illness-related reason for absenteeism, which to state again, was the most significant reported factor (and Palo Alto's was highest of the districts studied). Our district does a poor job of even taking asthma data, and the last time I looked, didn't even bother to report it even though it is part of the CHKS survey.

Given the significance of illness and absenteeismk related to illness as a factor, comparison makes almost no difference at all, because EVERY district can significantly improve this factor by taking well-researched steps. Such steps do not even have to cost a lot of money. (In Palo Alto, we were promised such improvements in the specifications of the facilities bond but they were ignored.)

This is not rocket science. We can do this before our kids start school in the fall. My family has transferred out of the district, but I am happy to pass along the years of environmental science research I did to try to help PAUSD, if anyone is interested.

7 people like this
Posted by please stick to the facts
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 25, 2016 at 12:30 pm


"No, Palo Alto teens have had a higher rate of suicide."

Please read the article: "Santa Clara County's youth suicide rate from 2003 to 2014 was almost the same as California's. Since 2003, Santa Clara County has had a consistently lower rate than the nation, according to the report."

Also review the response article: Web Link

"The comparisons "put a stake in the heart of the notion that there is something about Palo Alto, that there's something in our drinking water," Ojakian said."

[Portion removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Jul 25, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Stanford just released a new report on youth mental health: Web Link

23 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2016 at 5:48 pm

Citing the data from the entire COUNTY of Santa Clara as compared with the nation says nothing at all about the suicide rate in Palo Alto as compared to anywhere else. I read the entire preliminary report, twice, and it does not provide any rate comparison data between Palo Alto and anywhere else (possibly because there were fewer than 20 cases - see the report). Using the COUNTYWIDE data as compared to national data and then an out-of-context statement from Ojakian to make a sweeping and incorrect point regardless of evidence is dishonest (whether intentional or not). I invite you to read the entire report, the articles, and my posts with a more open mind.

PRI, Newsweek, SFgate, NPR, Washington Post, ABC, Stanford Daily, the Atlantic - all say the same thing: "The 10-year suicide rate for the two high schools is between four and five times the national average." (The Atlantic) Search on Palo Alto suicide rate. You can take issue with the use of the facts in the way the rate was calculated, but the CDC report does not in any way refute them.

I would further note that in the context of the quote you gave, some data from (just) the 2013 to 2014 CHKS survey shows some relative "good" news for a few measures. Given that Palo Alto went to such lengths after the first suicide cluster (prior to that survey year), and the other comparison districts almost certainly had no such Herculean mental health measures, one can surmise that the measures we took made a difference, that what we've endured isn't just some immutable part of being in Palo Alto. However, even that is just surmising, as is anything else (including your misuse off Mr. Ojakian's quote).

Here is a more full representation of Mayor Ojakian's opinion to the media:
Taken from the previous Weekly story by Elena Kadvany found here:
Web Link

Of special note:
Mayor Ojakian "criticized the decision to release broad-strokes findings and recommendations before the research team's investigation is even completed."
He said, "In some ways it feels like its a gloss-over, thrown together here and there,"

Here's the words in context of the article:
"However Palo Alto resident and former Mayor Vic Ojakian, who lost his college-aged son to suicide in 2004 and has spent the last decade-plus pushing for mental-health reform at both the local and state levels, criticized the decision to release broad-strokes findings and recommendations before the research team's investigation is even completed.
"In some ways it feels like its a gloss-over, thrown together here and there," he said.
Ojakian also questioned some of the report's data and "limited" sources. Because the CDC researchers only looked at youth who died in Santa Clara County, a number of deaths of local youth occurring out of the area were not considered, Ojakian said. He also suspected that the rates of youth died by suicide who had a recent crisis, had an existing mental-health condition or received psychological treatment were underreported given the researchers drew this information from coroner's reports, which might not necessarily include the above information if it's not available.
He also criticized the report's recommendations as too broad and even unproductive.
"We need to have them relate back to tangible things that we can do because the goal isn't to pat ourselves on the back that we collected some data. The goal is to save lives," Ojakian said."

Furthermore, in terms of the factors leading to suicidal behavior, the most major one is illness-related absenteeism, and PAUSD had the highest rate of any of the districts surveyed, much higher than some. This is a factor we can and should do something about reducing. The EPA publishes well-researched guidelines to help schools reduce illness-related absenteeism. Our district - and others, if these data are correct - should immediately take such steps before the next school year, because it is eminently possible, and we were actually promised it anyway in the facilities bond (never done).

You coming to a predetermined opinion then misrepresenting the information to try to support it is what is unhelpful. I have not only been factual, I have proposed something that could be done to save lives in light of the information presented by the CDC in the preliminary report, and luckily, it's something our district promised they would do anyway but hasn't yet.

4 people like this
Posted by please stick to the facts
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 26, 2016 at 8:25 am


For someone who says they've read the CDC report twice, you would have seen that in no place did it support your assertion that Palo Alto teens have had a higher rate of suicide. Indeed, their recommendation was to focus on the 20-24 year olds with intervention.

[Portion removed.]

17 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 26, 2016 at 12:39 pm

If you read the CDC report, you would see that in no place do they provide a suicide rate for Palo Alto [portion removed.]

The sources for citing the suicide rate in Palo Alto are every major news outlet in the Country: Washington Post, Newsweek, PRI, NPR, The Atlantic, SFgate, etc (you can do a search as I wrote above to find more). Perhaps you should take your beef up with every major news outlet in the nation, because they all reported Palo Alto having a four to five times the national rate of suicide over ten years. I'm not sure what you will use in your crusade to prove all the major news outlets in the nation wrong, not the CDC report because it doesn't make any mention of it.

I'm not sure why you keep sidestepping and ignoring the big point, which is that regardless of whether Palo Alto is higher or lower or somewhere in between, the CDC report showed that the most major of the factors they studied, illness related absenteeism, is something we can do something about and have not yet. This should be good news. Not just for Palo Alto, but the whole county. Because there are tools the EPA has created which are well-researched and shown to reduce illness-related absenteeism in faculty and staff. The tools are designed to help whether a district has more or less money, again, this should be good news for every district studied. It's very goid news in Palo Alto where we were promised those very improvements in our facilities bond but nothing has yet been done, and we can afford what we need to do for the health if our students and teachers.

3 people like this
Posted by please stick to the facts
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 26, 2016 at 1:33 pm

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by game changer
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 26, 2016 at 9:29 pm

The CDC report changed how we need to approach the situation in Palo Alto. The data shows that we shouldn't be asking "what's wrong with us?" - there isn't anything wrong. There is no magic answer and the common response of "we must do something" is the wrong reaction.

Instead, the CDC data shows we should be asking "what can we do to improve". It's a complete switch and a complete 180 from the mantra that a small group has been trying to force on the district.

It's like we've been feeling around in the dark and finally the CDC has turned the light on.

9 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 27, 2016 at 9:01 am

[Portion removed.]
We have all been trying to help our kids, to identify and solve whatever problems are negatively affecting them.

What I hope the report does - though I am not holding my breath that it will happen on its own just because of the report, and neither should anyone else - is to allow the community to put EVERYTHING on the table for problem solving, not just the things the administration finds acceptable in their personal-politics-soaked mindset.

The preliminary report DID show a difference between Palo Alto and most other school districts, and that is a much higher rate of illness-related absenteeism as one of factors leading to suicidal behavior. There is consensus-level environmental health research on how to reduce illness-related absenteeism. (There is very strong environmental health research that the same environmental health factors could negatively affect student mental health, but this report's evidence drawing a direct line between illness-related absenteeism and suicidal behavior HERE is harder for the decisionmakers to ignore.) Some of those same environmental factors are also shown to increase sleeplessness, another factor (though illness-related absenteeism is a greater factor even than that).

I keep trying to say this, and no one is listening: we can do something to address that factor, according to CONSENSUS-LEVEL ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH RESEARCH. The tools exist. All we have to do is adopt them competently and in good faith. I have been trying to bring this issue to the school administration since early 2009. The gamechanger IMO would be if this report finally got them to stop trying to avoid the physical health aspects of the problem and to be willing to do what it takes, that we KNOW will help, to benefit our kids.

1 person likes this
Posted by please stick to the facts
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 27, 2016 at 11:34 am

[Portion removed.]

The report shows there is no silver bullet. There isn't anything fundamentally wrong with Palo Alto. That has a HUGE impact on how you approach the problem.

As I've repeatedly said; we should look at what we can do to improve but this now changes to finding districts that are doing extremely well and determining what we can do to improve rather than trying to find out what is "wrong" with the district.

7 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 27, 2016 at 1:33 pm

[Portion removed.]

So powerful and solid is the connection between the physical environment and illness-related absenteeism, you can use illness-related absenteeism as proxy data for environmental health problem investigations. The CDC report showed that Palo Alto had the worst levels of illness-related absenteeism of all the districts reviewed, and illness-related absenteeism was even more of a factor in suicidal behavior than sleeplessness in Palo Alto, by far.

I didn't need the CDC report to tell me the district had these problems, that was based on empirical observation and fact - facts the decisionmakers in the district are going to have a harder time ignoring now with this report (though you seem pretty determined to keep it up, based on your posts). If you can't care about children's lives, there are significant liability issues for our taxpayers if the district continues to resist facing these facts, because they are advertising the new and renovated facilities to teachers - even as teachers have an unusually high rate of absenteeism themselves, comparable to really challenged inner city districts. If they continue, it's only a matter of time until some teacher realizes their lengthy pneumonia or baby's health problems could have come from covered-up environmental problems. Or that their child's frequent illnesses and school absences could have been prevented.

Like this comment
Posted by please stick to the facts
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 27, 2016 at 1:55 pm


"I didn't need the CDC report to tell me the district had these problems"

See, this is where we differ. You aren't looking at the CDC data - I am basing my posts on the facts represented in the CDC data not on "my observations".

6 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 27, 2016 at 4:44 pm

Um, I didn't need the CDC report to tell me that the district had these problems THAT WERE REPORTED IN THE CDC REPORT because they are pretty obvious to anyone who is not trying to avoid dealing with them.


How we differ is that I prioritize taking care of our kids even if I suffer for it, and you prioritize even lying to yourself in order to maintain your false ideas about how things should appear. It would be laughable except that we have some key people in our district who are just like you - to the detriment of our children's safety. Here we have a smoking gun from the report: The CDC identified illness-related absenteeism as THE greatest factor in suicidal behavior, and PAUSD had the highest of any district.

It is something we can address. Are you saying you think the CDC did bad work or that we shouldn't address it still? Even though the community was even promised it in the facilities bond specifications? Seriously? Why in all this back and forth do you just spuriously attack me and never deal with the facts from the report?

6 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 27, 2016 at 4:58 pm

Let me be more blunt: I am concerned about solving a problem, and you seem very very ocncerned about characterizing the situation a certain way based on limited data to make a sweeping claim about BLAME (which should have nothing to do with this discussion). If you want to be helpful and factual, you need to let go over your emotional attachment to how things look.

If the illness-related absenteeism data the CDC reported is correct, then there very well may be something wrong with our district - that can be fixed. Furthermore, that can be addressed and improved elsewhere, too, not just in PAUSD.

(The thing that is wrong with our district really comes down to people who act to protect their turf and their backsides above doing whatever it takes to protect and be good to ALL of our children and families. The saddest part is that in behaving that way, these same district people end up being their own worst enemies that way.)

8 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 27, 2016 at 10:46 pm

One more thing: Some of the most deeply unhappy experiences I've heard from district families is around illness. The newspaper even did an article once about a kid who had had colitis and how terrible the district was to deal with. I've heard the same story from many others, whether it's a few weeks' absence because of flu/pneumonia/injury/migraines or repeated absences for frequent illness. I'm not sure if the district just has horrible people who don't care enough if the families aren't rich or famous, or if it stems from other motivations, such as fear of making accomodations that might lead to a 504 (which the district clearly hates if the hateful/shameful behavior toward families is any indication), but the worst treatment absolutely hurts connection with the school (understatement). There may also be greater impacts emotionally on kids here if the academic system seems high stakes with little leeway for ny differences.

The high number of absences absolutely can be reduced by taking the right steps (finally), but improving the system so that absences don't completely ruin a child's academic year should also be addressed. There really is no learning advantage to the rigidity - this shoukd serve as yet another motivation to innovate.

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

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