Disturbing “Suicide Cluster” in Palo Alto Prompts CDC to Investigate

Shawna Chen is a senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Chen was inspired to start a section where students shared stories of anxiety or depression after the high school had a second "suicide cluster" last year. (PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy Sydney Yu)
Shawna Chen is a senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Chen was inspired to start a section where students shared stories of anxiety or depression after the high school had a second “suicide cluster” last year. (PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy Sydney Yu)

Shawna Chen recalled the unsettling response she got when she was in middle school and she told friends that she was going to attend the elite Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California.

“‘That’s the school with suicides,” Chen, 18, recalled her friends saying. “I don’t think I understood what that meant or the gravity of what that meant.”

The disconcerting comment stemmed from a horrific period between 2009 and 2010 during which five students or recent graduates from the school died by suicide, according to a report from the Palo Alto Unified School District. The deaths signaled a “suicide cluster,” defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as three or more suicides in close proximity in regards to time and space.

During her first two years at the high school, Chen said she didn’t think too much about the suicide cluster there as she focused on her academics at the school, which has been ranked as one of the best high schools in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

But then, as Chen and her classmates juggled college visits, SAT tests and AP classes, they also had to grapple with a second cluster between 2014 and 2015, the occurrence of which was noted during a school board meeting. These are sometimes called an “echo cluster,” according to the CDC.

Police and officials from the CalTrain commuter line confirmed that four local teens died from October 2014 to March 2015. CalTrain tracks run near the school and some of the students who committed suicide did so on those tracks, officials said. Chen said three of the deaths were students at Gunn or recent graduates. At least one other student from nearby Palo Alto High School also reportedly committed suicide during that time, according to local reports.

“It was a huge shock and there was a silent tension on campus on the following days,” she told ABC News of her experience during that time. “It was hard for people to wrap their heads around it.”

Palo Alto is not the only community to be affected by suicide clusters in recent years. In the last five years, the CDC has also investigated incidents in Fairfax County, Virginia, and two counties in Delaware where suicide clusters affected teens and young adults.

In Palo Alto, members of the CDC’s epidemiological assistance team are scheduled to begin an investigation this week on the “suicide contagion” risk in a similar way they may investigate a viral or bacterial outbreak that spreads through a community. As federal officials arrive in Palo Alto, they will face a community that is trying to find innovative ways to combat suicide when it becomes a “contagion.”

Suicide may seem to be the ultimate individual act, but a single suicide has the potential to cause a ripple effect with further deaths following in its wake, experts said, noting that these “suicide clusters” occur almost exclusively among teens and young adults.

Madelyn Gould, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, explained that teens are at a unique point in their life where their core relationships are changing and they are more impulsive than adults.

“Their relationships with other teens really start to play much more of a role than their relationships with their parents, and so they influence each other more,” she explained. “Between both the social influences and biological influences, it makes them much more vulnerable to being influenced by somebody else’s suicide.”

Gould has studied at least 50 suicide clusters throughout the U.S. and said one of the only constant threads that connect those at risk is age.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘suicide town,'” Gould told ABC News. “It crosses every socio-economic community from impoverished to wealthy, black to white, Native American. It really crosses all divides in the United States.”

The CDC even wrote a response plan in the 1980’s to “combat” and “prevent” clusters. In that report, the agency estimated that clusters account for 1 to 5 percent of suicides in adolescents and young adults.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans between the age of 15 to 24 and the third-leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 to 15, according to the CDC.

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SOURCE: ABC News, Gillian Mohney