Real-World “Heathers” Suicides Roil Silicon Valley

A teen-suicide epidemic breaks out in a California high school

Teenage suicide -- don't do it. If only it were that simple. A 17-year-old boy attempted to kill himself Thursday night in Palo Alto, Calif. after two classmates took their own lives in a similar manner in the space of a month.

The dead kids, both students at Gunn High School, hadn't even been born when Heathers, the dark 1988 tragicomedy which starred Winona Ryder, came out. Its pointed message was that parents' and teachers' hysteria over the mysterious tragedy of suicide may spark teens' suicidal impulses. As a new generation all but reenacts the film, that possibility is worth keeping in mind.

At 8:30 p.m. Thursday evening, the third Gunn student, who has not been identified, was caught by his mother attempting to cross the Caltrain tracks. She and others restrained him until police arrived. "They managed to confront the young man and keep him from hurting himself," said Dan Ryan of the Palo Alto Police Department.

A month ago, JP Blanchard, a junior at Gunn, walked in front of a Caltrain. This week, 17-year-old Sonya Raymakers also killed herself by crossing in front of a commuter train. She was due to graduate in two weeks. Her parents are holding a funeral service on Friday.

"As a parent I'm just as devastated," said Sheri Johnson, a parent of a Gunn student. "I want to know why. I want to know what was going on."

This latest suicide attempt took place even as parents and students attended a meeting at a community center in Palo Alto to discuss suicide and depression.

"It sets up a kind of pattern where somebody has been having thoughts about it might find it easier to do," said Dr. Bruce Bienenstock, a child psychiatrist. "I think it puts us all higher on alert to be sensitive to what's going on with them right now."

Sensitivity: that sounds sensible. Here's the cautionary tale from Heathers: In the movie, a community coming together to warn against the dangers of teen suicide. But the constant talk of suicide merely served to glamorize it and encourage more students to attempt to end their lives in a blaze of would-be glory. In death, at least, they'd be as popular as the cool kids.

Everyone wants to understand these tragic deaths, and prevent more. But could adults freaking out over teen suicide actually be the worst thing to do to troubled high schoolers?

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