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4th teen from same Palo Alto high school commits suicide

October 23, 2009 |  1:49 pm

For the fourth time in less than six months, a student from one Palo Alto high school has committed suicide, authorities say. The boy stepped in front of a train at the same location where three other students have killed themselves since May.

CalTrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said the latest suicide of a student from high-performing Gunn High School occurred at 10:50 p.m. Monday. Another Gunn student, a boy, 17, killed himself the same way at the same spot at 8:20 a.m on May 5.

His death was followed by the suicide of a girl, 17, on the tracks at 9:59 p.m. on June 2. The third suicide occurred at the same location on Aug. 21 at 10:45 p.m.

Palo Alto police told the San Jose Mercury News that police are limiting publicity about the suicides for fear of a growing cluster.

"The research we're being told is that the more we talk about it and romanticize it, the easier it is that mentally ill or depressed people will make that leap,'' Sgt. Dan Ryan was quoted as saying. "We're taking a stand and not releasing more information."

Ryan was unavailable today, and another detective in the department's juvenile section did not return a telephone inquiry.

Suicide clusters are relatively rare, although they have existed since ancient times.

One study found that between 1% and 5% of all teen suicides in the U.S. occur in clusters, taking the lives of 100 to 200 teenagers a year. Suicide contagion has involved prison inmates, marines, religious sects and Native Americans, but in the U.S. teens and young adults make up most of the clusters, according to Suicide and Mental Health Assn. International.

Clusters have included friends or acquaintances from a single school or church and also teens who have never had any direct contact with one another, according to the organization. Some share an "environmental stressor," the association said.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that four teenagers in a New Jersey suburb committed suicide on March 11, 1987 by locking themselves in a garage with a car engine running. Six days later, a 17-year-old boy and a woman, 20, attempted suicide in the same garage by the same means, the centers reported. The garage door was later removed.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests that suicides early in a cluster may influence the persons who commit suicide later in the cluster," the centers reported. "There is also research evidence that exposure to a suicide that was not part of a cluster may lead certain persons to take their own lives."

--Maura Dolan

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