CDC report: Youth suicide rates in county highest in Palo Alto, Morgan Hill
Palo Alto Daily News - 3/4/2017
March 03--Palo Alto and Morgan Hill have the highest suicide rates in Santa Clara County among youths 10 to 24 years old, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released today.
From 2003 to 2015, Palo Alto's youth suicide rate per 100,000 people was 14.1 and Morgan Hill's 12.7, according to the report. Both were much higher than the county rate of 5.4 deaths per 100,000.
In raw numbers, however, San Jose saw the most youth suicides. During that period, 113 young San Jose residents died by suicide in the city or elsewhere. In the city itself, 76 youths died by suicide.
During the same period, 19 young Palo Alto residents died by suicide in the city or elsewhere and 17 youths died by suicide in the city.
The CDC's study found that the 229 suicides of "youths" living in Santa Clara County mirror upward trends in California and the United States since 2003. They also show that suicides are more common among males and youths 20 to 24 years old.
In other cities, the youth suicide rate was 6.4 in Sunnyvale, 5.1 in Santa Clara and 4.6 in San Jose.
In comparison, the California rate was 5.3 per 100,000 and the national rate was higher than the county's 5.4 .
Santa Clara County Health Officer Sara Cody said she hopes the information will help reduce the stigma associated with depression and other mental health problems. "The main points to remember is that suicide is complex, but it is preventable and help is available," she said, adding that "there is never just one reason why someone dies by suicide."
The information released today stems from a year-long epidemiological investigation by the CDC launched at the request of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department and the Palo Alto Unified School District following a pair of suicide clusters in Palo Alto.
Some of those deaths occurred very publicly, on Caltrain tracks. In 2009-11, five incoming, current or former high school students died by suicide and in 2014 and 2015 four more died that way.
Epidemiologic Assistance (Epi-Aid) studies by the CDC are short-term investigations meant to address urgent public health problems ranging from outbreaks of infectious diseases to the effects of natural disasters.
The report has four goals: to capture trends in fatal and nonfatal suicidal behaviors in youths, including the number of deaths, visits to emergency rooms and hospital discharges; examine whether print media coverage of suicides from 2008 through 2015 met guidelines suggested by mental health professionals; inventory and compare local youth suicide prevention programs and policies to national recommendations; and make recommendations on strategies for the school, community and county levels.
The report cites research that says there is "potential for population level suicidal behaviors to increase as a result of media reporting," but adds it's unclear to what degree that contributes to the spread of suicidal behavior across populations and groups.
In a statement to the community, Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Max McGee said today the information about the city's higher rate of youth suicides is "difficult to comprehend."
The report, however, reaffirms the work the Palo Alto school district already does in promoting school attendance and engagement, McGee said. Officials will continue to keep a vigilant eye on students who miss school, which McGee called a "warning sign" and "risk behavior."
"Indeed, PAUSD collaborates with many organizations and professionals including Project Safety Net (PSN), the City of Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Police Department (PAPD), Santa Clara County Public Health Department (SCCPHD), mental health experts, and parent, student, and community groups to leverage resources and efforts that safeguard our students and support their families," McGee said.
McGee acknowledged that while the report provides "valuable information about suicide behaviors in our community, there are questions the Epi-Aid does not answer and cannot answer because suicide is such a complex topic." The district also plans to deepen and prioritize its efforts on student outreach, he said.
Morgan Hill Unified School District Superintendent Steve Betando said the vast majority of suicides in the county and Morgan Hill are not school-aged children, although youths in the age range of 15 to 19 do make up a high number of suicidal attempts reported nationwide.
"Due to this, we are taking a serious look at these numbers, and have begun reviewing our current prevention and intervention methods, ways we can strengthen them, and additional ways we can ensure that every student on our campuses is getting the attention and interaction he or she needs to form meaningful bonds with teaching and administration staff," Betando said.
It's also important to be cognizant of the fact that the report classifies "youth" as ages 10 to 24 and does not focus on school-aged children, Betando said. In the last 11 years, only two of the suicides by Morgan Hill residents were students of the Morgan Hill school district, and the most recent was six years ago, in 2011.
Parents who have lost children to suicide caution against reading too much into the report -- and also against oversimplifying by placing blame on grades, homework or academic pressure. Beyond the tally of numbers, each death is interwoven into the complexities of lives and communities, they say.
"I loved my son," said Vic Ojakian, a former Palo Alto mayor whose youngest son killed himself in 2004 while a student at UC Davis. "He isn't just a statistic sitting in a data report."
Another Palo Alto parent, Kathleen Blanchard, whose son died on the train tracks in 2009, refers to a favorite quote by author William Bruce Cameron: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
Cody, the health official, said she can't underscore enough that one of the main takeaways of the report is the importance of access to quality mental health care.
Ninety-two percent of youths who died by suicide in the county either experienced a recent crisis, had an existing mental health problem, had a history of treatment for mental health problems or had a history of suicidal thoughts, the report says.
Cody also said there should be services that are tailored to the target audience, may it be individuals, families or the community.
Some of these target groups are males, who made up 75 percent of the youth suicides in the county during the study's time period, and those between 20 and 24 years old, who were 66 percent of the group.
And data on emergency department visits show that the majority of youths visiting hospitals for suicidal thoughts, attempts or injury are female.
Cody pointed out that the 20- to 24 year-old demographic is beyond the reach of high schools and perhaps even college.
"The evidence doesn't support a laser focus on schools," Cody said.
McGee agrees that schools are part of the larger community. What schools can continue to do is "promote students' wellness, resilience and self confidence" and help students realize they have resources in their peers, teachers and others even after graduation.
McGee said he hopes the CDC report will bring some balance to discussions later this year on weighted grades and trimming the school budget.
"When we talk about weighted grading, there's a question of whether or not reporting weighted grades on transcripts will increase competition and stress among students," McGee said. "I happen to think it will."
McGee also reiterated that while the district aims to make budget cuts to address a multimillion-dollar shortfall, it does not intend to cut wellness initiatives or socio-emotional learning components.
Looking ahead, Cody said the county's Suicide Prevention Oversight Committee will refine its approach based on data and recommendations in the CDC report. The committee already is working on establishing a local "crisis text line" in addition to a phone help line.
The CDC released a preliminary report in July on its Santa Clara County study that was met by some Palo Alto parents with concern and frustration.
Former Gunn High teacher Marc Vincenti criticized the preliminary CDC report for neglecting to talk to teachers and others in close contact with students.
"The CDC has not consulted to any meaningful degree with any of the people most intimately involved in lives of teenagers," Vincenti said. "People will think something useful has been done, when nothing useful has been done."
McGee has said that CDC researchers collected existing information and data and met with local community organizations about existing suicide prevention programs and activities. Researchers also met with the district's teachers, counselors, psychologists and mental health therapists, school and district administrators, school board members, and PTA parent representatives.
The preliminary report recommends outreach to male youths, who make up 75 percent of the deaths, and ramping up efforts to address bullying. It also recommends close contact and positive relationships with parents and school adults, especially for youths who use drugs and alcohol, are victims of violence, or self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
HELP IS AVAILABLE
Call the Santa Clara County Suicide and Crisis Hotline, available 24/7, at 855-278-4204, or the California Youth Crisis Line at 800-843-5200. You can also reach a Crisis Text Line volunteer counselor, a free and confidential service, by texting the word, "BAY," to 741741. Additional resources are available at www.psnpaloalto.com.
Bay Area News Group reporter Sharon Noguchi contributed to this article.
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