A team of mental health experts from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in California this week to investigate recent clusters of teen suicides in the affluent university town of Palo Alto, home to Stanford University.
They'll spend two weeks analyzing data from the Santa Clara County coroner's office, local hospitals, district schools and calls to emergency service agencies as part of an "Epi-Aid" investigation.
According to the CDC, "an Epi-Aid allows rapid response by CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers, who assist in investigating an infectious or non-infectious disease outbreak, natural or manmade disaster, or other public health emergency."
Experts will also facilitate about eight informational meetings with students, parents, teachers and community leaders about suicide prevention strategies.
"They’re really here to investigate and help us understand the youth suicides," said Mary Gloner, executive director of Project Safety Net in Palo Alto. "They’ll be looking at data we’ve already collected, exploring different programs and examining the media of how the coverage of teen suicides during the prime time period."
Seven teen suicides were reported in Palo Alto between 2009 and 2011, according to Project Safety Net, and at least four occurred in 2014 and 2015. The teen suicide rate in Palo Alto last year was the highest in a decade.
Researchers are responding to a joint request from the Palo Alto Unified School District, City of Palo Alto and the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health to provide insight as to why teen suicides have occurred so frequently. Each agency will provide data and convene community members to speak with researchers. The CDC will provide most financial resources.
The Palo Alto Unified School district became interested in a CDC investigation in March 2015 after administrators read the CDC report on youth suicide in Fairfax County, Virginia.
The Fairfax County study concluded that among the possible risk factors facing young people there were an inadequate number of school counsellors, stigma and denial around mental illness, pressure to excel academically and bullying through social media.
In response, Palo Alto Unified School District allocated $250,000 for mental health services and more full-time school counselors. Caltrain removed vegetation along the rail corridor as part of a suicide prevention program and installed infrared cameras at busy intersections in Palo Alto.
CDC researchers will be on the Peninsula until Feb. 29. A preliminary report on the situation in Palo Alto is expected to be completed soon after the site visit.
SUICIDE PREVENTION: If you know someone who needs help, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).