Friday, August 14, 2020
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Suicide at the socioeconomic extremes

We consider here suicide among two different groups of schoolchildren in the US: those who live on an Indian reservation and those who attend some of the nation’s best schools in the Silicon Valley town of Palo Alto, Calif., where Stanford University can be found.

If you or someone you care about is thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The lifeline routes calls when they’re received to a skilled, trained crisis worker, who listens to callers’ problems and can tell them about mental health services in their area. Calls are confidential and toll-free.

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

First we go to an impoverished Indian reservation in the Badlands of South Dakota, near the Nebraska border. The story of Santana Janis, a 12-year-old Lakota Indian girl, was told in the New York Times.

She lived with her grandfather and at least 12 siblings and cousins in a derelict trailer. She was outgoing for a 12-year-old and really enjoyed riding horses. Then she started to develop dark moods regularly and told her grandfather that she no longer wanted to live. He called her other grandfather, who then drove 40 miles to talk with her, and she promised him she would never go so far as to kill herself. But six months later, she hanged herself and died.

Santana attended Pine Ridge School, which is one of 183 schools across the country registered with the Bureau of Indian Education. The school received an emergency grant earlier this week from the US Education Department’s School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) Project in the amount of $218,000, which it will spend on the suicide problem.

A counselor and a social worker will be hired. The school will implement a Lakota-based healing program. Cultural teachers to provide monthly lessons on healing processes will be brought in.

But reducing suicide on reservations is a notoriously uphill battle, because poverty is often dire. Santana’s mother, an alcoholic, pops into her life only on occasion and only to leave right away. Fighting and alcohol abuse fill their hometown. As a result of this and other complex causes, more than 100 young people on the reservation attempted suicide over a four-month period earlier this year; 14 schoolchildren did kill themselves over the last year.

“The situation has turned into an epidemic,” the Chicago Tribune quoted Thomas Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, as saying about the suicides. His 24-year-old niece was among two adults who also committed suicide this past winter. “There are a lot of reasons behind it: the bullying at schools, the high unemployment rate. Parents need to discipline the children.”

Suicide in the epicenters of high school overachievement

Now turn to a world that seems far-removed from the sands of South Dakota: the Silicon Valley of California. Here between May 2009 and January 2010, five teenagers from Palo Alto stepped in front of trains, Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times. Between October 2014 and mid-April, another three Palo Alto teens killed themselves that way. A local newspaper, the Palo Alto Weekly, called the epidemic a “suicide contagion.”

“While mental health professionals are rightly careful not to oversimplify or trivialize the psychic distress behind them by focusing on any one possible factor,” Mr Bruni writes, “the contagion has prompted an emotional debate about the kinds of pressures felt by high school students in epicenters of overachievement.” He points out that suicide is disproportionately high among high school students in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., as well.

So, I have to wonder whether kids in Palo Alto get to be kids or their parents hover constantly and put them in situations that kids—who do, if memory serves, make mistakes on occasion—shouldn’t have to deal with. If the latter is true, parents are impeding the path of these young people toward true self-discovery. We need to fix that if it’s happening.

“There’s something about childhood itself in Palo Alto and in communities like Palo Alto that undermines the mental health and wellness of our children,” the Times quoted Julie Lythcott-Haims as saying. She was a dean at Stanford from 2002 to 2012, and her two children, ages 13 and 15, go to school in Palo Alto.

Her new book, How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, has a somewhat self-contradictory title in that raising a successful “adult” by preparing a “kid” for success is exactly what parents in Palo Alto are doing and exactly what may be behind the pressure cooker that leads to a disproportionately high rate of suicide there and in similar communities in the US.

In my view, teens themselves say it best. In an op-ed for Palo Alto Online, junior Carolyn Walworth writes as the high school’s student representative on the board:

Students are gasping for air, lacking the time to draw a measly breath in.

We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.

We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick.

We, as a community, have completely lost sight of what it means to learn and receive an education.

Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?

Should school districts assume some liability for suicide by bullied students? Read this article about a lawsuit in Kentucky that considers this question, and see Common Core English language arts high school writing standard WHST.11-12.1.A for more information.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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