CDC Investigates Teen Suicides In Palo Alto

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Caltrain, the commuter rail service between Santa Clara County and San Francisco, pulls in to Palo Alto.  (Don DeBold via Flickr)

Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are currently in Palo Alto, in the second of a two-week study on youth suicide.

The region reeled from a suicide cluster that began in 2009, when five teens killed themselves in a span of nine months, mainly by stepping in front of speeding commuter trains. The community launched into action, developing numerous support programs and prevention strategies. But then another cluster hit in 2014, when another four teens committed suicide.

Local health officials asked the CDC to help them understand why.

“One of the key objectives the CDC has is to inventory all the different prevention strategies that have been put in place by schools and community groups,” said Dr. Sara Cody, public health officer for Santa Clara County. “Then they can provide recommendations, like, ‘This looks great, keep it up,’ or ‘Change the strategy in this way.’ It’s a nice opportunity to have outside professional feedback.”

The CDC sent five staff members to town, including three epidemic intelligence service officers, working from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Cody says.

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So far, they’ve spent most of their days analyzing data.

“Coroner's reports. Vital statistics. Emergency Room. School surveys,” says Mary Gloner, executive director of Project Safety Net, a Palo Alto network of community groups aimed at fostering youth well-being. “They’re really abstracting all that information to help better understand the suicides that either led to fatalities or not.”

Most evenings, the CDC investigators attend meetings to talk about the community’s suicide prevention strategies. For example, after the first suicides, family and friends set up a “railroad watch” by the train tracks to prevent teens who may have gone there to end their lives. Gloner says the CDC asked several questions about this.

“You know, what was the genesis of it, what were the challenges, and where has it evolved to,” she says. “At first, family members and neighbors organized themselves. They developed a schedule. Then the city of Palo Alto helped support them. Now the police department is working with a vendor to have track watchers.”

The CDC will also review local media coverage, to see how it may have contributed to copycat suicides. Kelly McBride, a media ethicist with the Poynter Institute, says there are two mistakes reporters make when covering a teen suicide.

“One is being very explicit and descriptive about the cause of death,” she says. “And the second thing is (the reporting) is overly simplistic and attributes the suicide to a single issue or glorifies the individual as being perfect ... and just having this one problem, like a bad test grade or a breakup.”

If a young person is struggling and vulnerable to suicide, McBride says, reading an overly simplistic portrayal of another person’s suicide can make it look like “a reasonable option to someone whose brain is not functioning the same as a healthy human being.”

Dr. Cody says this has been a concern in Palo Alto, where local media covered the suicides with great intensity and, she says, perhaps not always in keeping with guidelines for responsible suicide coverage.

The CDC will be in Palo Alto until Friday. Investigators will write a preliminary report shortly after, and then an in-depth report later this year.