Rash of Teen Suicides Rattles Calif. City

warning signs at train tracks near palo alto, calif. teen suicides
Too often this year the Silicon Valley commuter train that roars through affluent Palo Alto has become a terrible solution for troubled teenagers.

The suicide on the tracks this week of a 16-year-old is the fourth in the past six months. All were enrolled in the same school, Palo Alto's top-rated Gunn High, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

Last night some 400 anxious parents gathered at a community meeting.

"It's more than a coincidence now and I almost wonder if it's starting to become like a siren call to kids who are in this area who are not feeling well," said parent Ann Hillen.

But the search for ways to stop it has been going on since the first suicide in May.

"It is a cruel irony that despite all these efforts and our increasingly strong committee outreach on this topic, we haven't yet found a solution," said Palo Alto School District Superintendent Kevin Skelly.

Many worry that each suicide is planting seeds for the next.

"Some of the students are saying it's more of a trend thing because you can totally see kids are getting a lot of attention from this," said Mathew Im, a senior at Gunn High School.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that as many as 5 per cent of teenage suicides occur in clusters. The Palo Alto deaths all happened near the same rail crossing.

"With everybody jumping in front of a train, with all the suiciders doing that, I think that does suggest there is that phenomenon at work," said Dr. Stuart Lustig, a child psychiatrist at UC San Francisco.

The news media generally don't report suicides but when the string of tragedies in Palo Alto sparked local news coverage there was criticism that the reporting could bring more copycat deaths.

"By showing video of the passing train, the loud train steaming down its corridor, we make that more accessible in the minds of someone else who's feeling troubled or feeling depressed," said Dan Ryan of the Palo Alto Police Department.

Local media even got letters from the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

"We're not saying censor the news but we're asking the news media to think a little harder about what they report because by reporting it they could be perpetuating the story," said Annenberg's Dan Romer.

A community is wondering whether more information will bring difficult issues out of the shadows or just bring more tragedy.

Suicide prevention resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; 1-800-273-TALK

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE); 952-946-7998

Suicide and Mental Health Association International (SMHAI)

Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention program; Ask4help@yellowribbon.org; 303-429-3530

American Association of Suicidology

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

National Institute of Mental Health: Suicide Prevention

World Health Organization: Suicide Prevention

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.