What causes young people to decide to end their lives? That’s an important question, of course, just as suicide prevention programs and crisis hot lines matter. But it’s equally important to examine the environment, to map the terrain that almost all of our adolescents occupy, because that environment may be harmful—and sometimes fatal—for our children. I believe that some of our organizational structures, not just our behavior, are negative influences on children. My particular concern is the way we isolate our children by age and grade, from kindergarten through senior year of high school.
I’ve spent the last week in and around Palo Alto, California, where five high school students have ended their lives violently in the past two years—and more than a few others have been prevented from trying, often at the last minute, by observant adults. That community is in shock but is determined to find out all it can and make whatever changes are needed to keep tragedy away. Experts are conducting an in-depth ‘forensic audit’ of the community’s strengths and weaknesses, with that report due in next spring.
Palo Alto is a high-achieving community, and many parents expect their children to do as well or better than they did. Many kids face the pressures so powerfully depicted in “Race to Nowhere,” the film I recently reviewed here. In one sense, that film is a “call to inaction” because it says to schools and parents, “’Back off!’ You are endangering your children’s health.”