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Teen suicides in affluent Calif. city to be subject of CDC study

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- A team of mental health experts from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to be in California this week to investigate a series of suicides by teenagers in the affluent university town of Palo Alto.

Santa Clara County officials took the unusual step of inviting the CDC to do an epidemiological study on the teen suicide problem that has anguished Palo Alto parents, teachers and young people for at least seven years, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

The team, which includes representatives from both the CDC and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has spent the last three months working with the county Public Health Department to gather data on suicides, suicide attempts and suicidal behavior among Santa Clara County youth.

Starting Tuesday, its members plan to spend two weeks on the ground meeting with local doctors and community leaders, according to the Mercury News. Their research also will include evaluating existing suicide prevention programs, reviewing media coverage of the teen suicides and identifying the factors that might put Palo Alto's youth at greater risk, CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard told the newspaper.

Six teenagers from Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University, killed themselves in both 2009 and 2010, events that triggered public forums, peer-run support groups and police patrols at the commuter train tracks where some of the young people ended their lives. Yet four more teens committed suicide in both 2014 and 2015.

From 2010 through 2014, an average of 20 minors and young adults a year died by suicide in Santa Clara County as a whole.

CBS San Francisco reported that Palo Alto's suicide rate is up to five times the national average.

Paige Parsons took her daughter out of Gunn High School, in Palo Alto, after two and a half years.

"It has a wonderful reputation for academic excellence," she said. "But there's so much tutoring behind the scenes, there's so much focus on nothing but academics that the kids have no other life."

The CDC team will try to identify risk factors, looking at everything from media coverage of the suicides to academic pressure.

Palo Alto officials asked the state and county to request the CDC evaluation after hearing of a suicide assessment the agency conducted last year in Fairfax, Virginia, where 85 people between the ages of 10 and 24 killed themselves in a 5-year period.

The Fairfax County study concluded that among the possible risk factors facing young people there were an inadequate number of school counselors, stigma and denial around mental illness, pressure to excel academically and bullying through social media.

A preliminary report on the situation in Palo Alto is expected to be completed soon after the site visit.

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