In the heart of Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, four high school students committed suicide in 2009. In the current 2014-2015 academic year, three Palo Alto high school students have committed suicide (four if you count a recent graduate). These numbers are considered unacceptably high. Superintendant Max McGee was quoted as saying that "We're in a crisis situation." At the end of March the school board allocated funds to hire a couple therapists to provide support for students having emotional challenges. According to school board member Ken Dauber, "Adolescent Counseling Services's on-site licensed therapist at Gunn high school told him that there are students expressing suicidal ideation nearly every day and that staff are overwhelmed and cannot meet the need."
Adding resources to help with student mental health is commendable, but might be criticized as treating the symptom rather than curing the underlying disease. As Palo Alto High School's student representative to the school board wrote, "Telling us to go see a school counselor for stress is insufficient. It is analogous to putting a band aid over a fresh gunshot wound. Students in our district understand how to cope with stress; the real problem is that they simply have too much of it to cope with."
There has been much discussion about the cause of the problem. Some blame parents for putting too much pressure on their kids. Others blame the schools or the teachers for assigning too much homework. Still others suggest the students are at fault for being overly obsessed with gaining admission to top colleges. However unclear it is how blame should be apportioned among these participants, it does on the face of it seem reasonable to suppose some of them are to blame—for who else is responsible for this situation?
But it is a mistake to view this problem as simply a problem with Palo Alto schools and students. Similarly, it may be a mistake—a natural mistake in a highly individualistic society—to think of this problem as primarily one of identifying particular students suffering from "suicidal ideation" and treating each with therapy to prevent the thoughts from leading to suicidal action.
Though the schools are supposed to teach students to solve problems by means of rational thought, there is little indication of serious thought being given to the phenomenon of suicide. There is no class offered on suicide, though it would seem to be a very suitable subject of study, one that might be relevant and engaging for many students. There is of course no discussion of the arguments for and against suicide. Students are supposed to make decisions rationally, but not this one: here emotions are allowed to rule; reasoned consideration of whether suicide is a good idea is considered unthinkable. Of course for someone seriously considering suicide, it is not so obviously the wrong choice, so consideration of the arguments against it would appear most appropriate, provided one takes seriously the idea that decisions should be based on reasoning.
At the foundation of any serious attempt to understand suicide and student stress should be the recognition that these are not merely Palo Alto problems, or Silicon Valley problems, but worldwide problems. Student stress is a leading cause of suicide in Korea. In China, the pressure to do well on college entrance exams is so great that some prep classrooms provide students with intravenous feeds of amino acids to improve their concentration.
Competition to get into top colleges is much tougher than it was a generation ago. International students are taking more of the available places, so today's America high school students are competing not just with other Americans, but with large numbers of outstanding students from abroad. Similarly, competition for good jobs is toughs is harder than it used to be. A college degree that decades ago essentially guaranteed an opportunity to progress into a good career no longer does so; thus it is more important to get into a prestigious college from which there's a better chance of advancing to a good job.
Of course the problem of finding a good job and career is not limited to college graduates. Unemployment and underemployment of young people is high, not just in America, but in Europe and around the world. The Tunisian fruit vendor whose suicide sparked the Arab spring revolutions was a college graduate. Not only could he not find a job commensurate with his education; the authorities refused to let him continue working as a street vendor, for he lacked the required permit.
Today's New York Times (4/4/2015) featured a front page article by Andrew Higgins about eight young men from Fredrikstad, Norway, who went to join the Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria. How can such a cluster of extremists be explained? Aside from living close to one another, "all those who followed from Fredrikstad had little in common, coming from different ethnic, socio-economic and even religious backgrounds." However, there was one other similarity. According Ragnar Foss, a local officer heading a team responsible for youth crime, “The only thing they had in common is that they did not function in society. But they wanted to be able to do something, to be good at something.”
Here we have the fundamental problem, described by Durkheim in his sociological examination of suicide. Young people find themselves in a world of trouble. They do not see good prospects for solving the problems of the world, or of their own lives. Modern life is becoming increasingly frantic, with growing competition, increasing distractions and insufficient time. An American woman recently summed up her situation as follows:
- "As an upper middle-class suburban mother, I can tell you that virtually every woman I know is medicated. Why? The whole world is going to hell. Medication is the only way women are able to cope; it's a good way to keep us sedated enough to function as the whole planet melts down."
It is easy in such a world to feel that one's situation is hopeless. If life under such conditions produces despair and unhappiness, why not end it rather than continuing to suffer? How can one in such circumstances find a satisfactory path forward? One answer some desperate youth find appealing is: Join the jihadists in building a revolutionary new, ideal society. The parents and teachers and school administrators of Palo Alto should try to provide a better answer. One way to do so would be to create a new class, perhaps titled The Future of Humanity, that would not just examine causes of contemporary despair and arguments against suicide, but explore ways young people can work effectively toward making the future better not just for themselves, but for humanity in general.
[This is just a draft, to be extended and polished when time allows.]