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June 15, 2015
by Agnes Oh, PsyD, LMFT

Suicide Cluster on the Rise among Palo Alto’s Teens : Is it Contagious?

June 15, 2015 05:55 by Agnes Oh, PsyD, LMFT

It all began in 2009 -2010 when four students and a recent graduate from Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California killed themselves over a seven-month period. In just five years, the tragedy ensued and was followed by another four suicide victims this year. When a recent graduate from Gunn High killed himself on the tracks near East Meadow Drive in Palo Alto, another student ended his life the same way in less than three weeks after. Two and half months later, a senior killed himself followed by another suicide committed by a sophomore from Palo Alto High School (Kapp, 2015).

Ironically, Palo Alto is known for its longstanding reputation as one of the most affluent, erudite, and achievement-oriented cities in the state.  After the string of the town’s tragedy, however, its once glorious status seems to be less than perfect, casting a grim shadow of apprehension about the city’s future.

The predicament is only intensifying with the increasing number of students being challenged by various sorts of emotional, mental, and psychological barriers. Between August and April of this school year, approximately fifty-two of its 1,900 students have reportedly been hospitalized or treated for suicide ideation (ibid.).

What is particularly disconcerting about these Palo Alto’s teens is their potential susceptibility to what appears to be a contagious chain reaction to execute self-destructive behaviors, often triggered when  someone sets a precedence in repetitious patterns.

Suicide Clusters

Suicide clusters are defined as a series of three or more deaths within 3 months that can be closely linked by space or social relationships that occur in specific institutional settings such as schools, military commands, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons (Niedzwiedz et al, 2014).

What’s particularly noteworthy is that most suicide clusters often involve young people and occur in close time or geographic proximity of various settings. It is estimated that 1-2 % of adolescent suicides have been found to be clustered in the USA and approximately 2.4% of all suicides in Australia (ibid.).

More recent phenomena seem to be further supporting this hypothesis. In addition to the rising incidents among Palo Alto’s teens, there have been clusters at high schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, at the University of Pennsylvania, and at MIT (Kapp, 2015).  Additionally, nine young people have killed themselves on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota since last December (ibid.).

Missing Link

Despite the general public’s growing concern and awareness of its gravity, it is difficult to pinpoint the specific cause of this tragic trend which only seems to be mounting in a variety of locales. What makes it especially intriguing are the inconsistent patterns and key characteristics that are not universal to all groups.

As mentioned above, clusters do happen across different groups and are not exclusive to any particular age, background, or ethnicity. They occur among the poor, educated, wealthy, and unerudite in similar prevalence. It is still a mystery as to why and how clusters occur among young people of different cliques and what can be done to curb them. It is equally perplexing to note that even the kids from a wealthy and privileged environment are not entirely immune and just as prone to the trigger.

In the case of Palo Alto’s teens, it's been argued that the insurmountable pressure to achieve and succeed imposed by their insular community has become the lethal source of their ruptured development, fatally depriving them of their individual sense of self-worth. The community’s traditional norm to define and measure happiness by unrealistic demands to compete for more to reach the unreachable level of success may be one of the controversial issues germane to the demise of the teens who have been victimized in the process (Kapp, 2015).

Next Step

In today’s society of materialism, it is not difficult to lose sight of what really matters in life and inadvertently pursue aimless goals and objectives at the expense of the most precious gift of life itself.

The tragic stories of the Palo Alto teens are beckoning the parents, teachers, and community leaders to hear their voices of desperate plea for help and necessary change. The blood shed by these teens is further summoning the whole society to come together to ponder upon the most fundamental lessons learned from the irreversible loss and start re-aligning truly important priorities to impart now and for generations to come.

Perhaps only then would their sacrifices not be simply commiserated in vain but rather serve as a meaningful catalyst for all.


Kapp, D. May 22, 2015. Why Are Palo Alto's Kids Killing Themselves? San Francisco Magazine. Retrieved from

Niedzwiedz, C., Haw, C., Hawton, K. and Platt, S. (2014). The Definition and Epidemiology of Clusters of Suicidal Behavior: A Systematic Review. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. DOI: 10.1111/sltb.12091

About the Author

Dr. Agnes Oh Dr. Agnes Oh, PsyD, LMFT

Dr. Agnes Oh is dually licensed as a clinical psychologist and a marriage and family therapist in the state of California, fully committed to helping each individual to maximize his/her intrinsic potential to heal, grow, and thrive.

Dr. Agnes Oh has a clinical practice in Glendale, CA

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