Teen suicide clusters in Palo Alto: Is media attention at fault?

Ten teens have committed suicide in the affluent community of Palo Alto since 2009, prompting the CDC to investigate the role of media in the crisis. The results of the investigation could inform best practices for media organizations covering suicide.

Mental health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will investigate the town of Palo Alto, Calif., after a series of teenage suicides. 

Palo Alto, the affluent hometown of Stanford University, first witnessed a suicide cluster between 2009 and 2010 when six teens killed themselves, and four more committed suicide between Oct. 2014 and March 2015. The CDC has launched an investigation into the role media coverage of the deaths may have played in influencing of other students' decisions to take their own lives. The results of the investigation could inform best practices for media organizations covering suicide.

Under the CDC’s definition, a suicide cluster is “a group of suicides or suicide attempts, or both, that occur closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community.” Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 24, but the agency estimated that such clusters only account for one to five percent of these deaths. 

“Nevertheless, a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that, in a given suicide cluster, suicides occurring later in the cluster often appear to have been influenced by suicides occurring earlier in the cluster,” the CDC explains. 

And in almost all cases, a proliferation of negative media is present, the CDC goes on to explain.

“Ecological evidence also suggests that exposure of the general population to suicide through television may increase the risk of suicide for certain susceptible individuals,” says the CDC. 

Madelyn Gould, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, says young adults are “much more vulnerable to being influenced by somebody else’s suicide,” especially after it is repeatedly broadcast across social media networks and news outlets. 

But mental health professionals and educators have found that students are also vulnerable to their peers’ positive support.

“But the stories of lives saved often don’t make headlines – and prevention experts are encouraged about progress in that direction,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Stacy Khadaroo reported in 2013. “A clearer picture of how suicide ‘contagion’ can happen is emerging – and prompting stronger efforts to guard against it.” 

The prevalence of television and the Internet can broadcast the details of suicide cases among teens, but it also can help spread prevention resources. 

After the Palo Alto first suicide, “a lot of media came in and were investigating and said ‘Why are these kids killing themselves?’ ” Shawna Chen, 18, told ABC News. “It was being prodded apart, like a wound.” 

School officials and parents have struggled with how to adequately honor the victims without turning the students into martyrs, because "one key to heading off copycats was not romanticizing the death," The Atlantic explains. But Professor Gould says she is "extremely impressed," with the Palo Alto community's response, honoring the late students by focusing on solutions instead of memorializing the past. 

To combat the negative narrative pervading the students’ lives, Ms. Chen started a section for the paper this year titled ‘Changing the Narrative,’ where students can share essays about their own anxieties and fears. 

And this positive contradiction of fear-mongering news can really help students, Gould tells ABC.

“We have research that shows stories about resilience and coping and dealing with suicidal thoughts in ways that are engaging ... they are not only inspiring, they can prevent somebody else’s suicide attempt.” 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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