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Ducks in a Row: Teen Suicide in Silicon Valley

by Miki Saxon


Sad. Sick. Stupid.

Those are are the words that best describe the effect of wealth on kids, especially in Palo Alto.

The Atlantic has a well-researched article delving into the extraordinarily high teen suicide rates for the children of the so-called meritocratic elite.

Suniya Luthar, professor at Arizona State University, has done a lot of research on the subject.

The rich middle- and high-school kids, Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average.

She tripped over the situation by accident when comparing an inner-city school with a nearby high-income, suburban, mostly white school.

The results were not what she expected. In the inner-city school, 86 percent of students received free or reduced-price lunches; in the suburban school, 1 percent did. Yet in the richer school, the proportion of kids who smoked, drank, or used hard drugs was significantly higher—as was the rate of serious anxiety and depression.

The rash of suicides has gotten a lot of parental attention, but mostly focused outward, instead of seeing it as a parenting crisis, but the kids know.

Martha Cabot put up a YouTube video that eventually logged more than 80,000 views, and comments from parents all over the country. Sitting in her bedroom in a T-shirt, with curls falling loose from her ponytail, she confirmed many parents’ worst fears about themselves. “The amount of stress on a student is ridiculous,” Martha said. “Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements.” She was recording the video mostly for parents, she explained, because apparently it took a suicide to get adults to pay attention.

Sadly, the parental attention is in the form of calls for data to evaluate, statistics to analyze and meetings/discussions with experts, as if it is an engineering problem as opposed to a human one.

The spike in teen suicides, along with the increase of suicides at elite colleges and among entrepreneurs, should sound an alarm — one that big data and all the stats in the world aren’t going to solve.

Our friends, colleagues and especially our children aren’t robots that can be reprogrammed at will.

In these days of assumed meritocracy, where children can be turned into anything, we admire them as displays of remarkable engineering, to be tweaked and fine-tuned into bilingual perfection. What we’ve lost, perhaps, is a sense that there may be things about them we can’t know or understand, and that that mysterious quality, separate from us, is what we should marvel at.

Read the entire article and send the link to every parent you know.

And for the rest of your life be the nonjudgmental, safe-to-talk-about-anything haven for every child with whom you come in contact.

Your actions could save a life.

Flickr image credit: Darin House

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