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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Kota student’s suicide- Institute never informed about son missing classes: Parents - Indian Express

The institute authorities said the student was routinely absent and had not showed up for classes since mid-September.

Written by Mahim Pratap Singh | Jaipur | 
Published:December 30, 2015 2:53 am

The parents of the 16-year-old boy who committed suicide in Kota on Sunday have countered the allegations of the institute where he studied that the parents failed to respond to repeated text messages and calls from the institute regarding their son’s absence.

Bhanu Kumar from Bihar’s Saharsa district was found hanging from the ceiling fan at his rented accommodation in the city’s Mahavir Nagar locality, about 2-3 km from Vibrant Academy, the coaching institute where he was enrolled.

The institute authorities said the student was routinely absent and had not showed up for classes since mid-September.
However, Bhanu’s father Subhash Kumar Singh, who works at a private firm in Mumbai and arrived in Kota on Monday morning, rubbished the institute’s claim.

“They sent only two messages — one for Diwali and another for winter break. I did not receive any other calls or messages. If I had, I would have rushed to Kota earlier to find out what was going on,” Singh told The Indian Express.

“Anyway, it is futile now. None of this blame game will bring back my son. I just hope this does not happen to anyone else’s child,” he said. The police, too, said it was too early to arrive at a conclusion regarding the reasons behind Bhanu’s extreme step.

“No, it’s not like that (that the parents were ignoring the institute’s calls). Right now it will be difficult to say anything since he did not leave behind a suicide note,” Kota Superintendent of Police Sawai Singh Godara told this correspondent.

“It would not be fair to blame anyone at this point,” he added.
Authorities at Vibrant Academy maintained that the student had been missing classes for some time.

“He was not here to prepare for IIT-JEE or a medical entrance test. He was only in Class X and only after passing Boards would he have decided on a future course. So, there is no question of being under pressure. Besides, he was too young for these exams. It would have been at least two and a half years before he could have attempted clearing them,” Narendra Avasthi, director, Vibrant Academy, told this correspondent.

“He had not been coming to the institute and also wasn’t present for the ‘fun-day’ event we had at our institute on Saturday. We had intimated his parents about his absence and even called them but they hadnot responded,” Avasthi claimed.
But Bhanu’s family denied the claim, saying that his elder brother had also prepared for his engineering entrance exam from the same institute and that had really inspired Bhanu.
“He was a hard working student. He did not even stay back for Chhath pooja the last time he was home, as it would mean missing classes,” said Neeraj Singh, his uncle.

“They (institute) authorities would call promptly whenever the fee was due. Couldn’t they have called when Bhanu had gone absent for so long? Maybe it (his death) could have been avoided,” he said.

- See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/jaipur/kota-students-suicide-institute-never-informed-about-son-missing-classes-parents/#sthash.bFRp5AD5.dpuf

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

From Entrance Coaching Hub To Suicide Hub, Kota Registers 30th Student Suicide This Year - India Times

December 29, 2015

Students ending their lives, unable to cope up with pressure of competitive exams and expectations from families have once again cast a shadow on the thriving entrance coaching business in Rajastan's city of Kota.

                      The Hindu/ Representative Image

The latest victim to end his life was 14-year-old Bhanu Kumar, who was found hanging from a fan in his hostel room on Sunday. The latest incident have taken the number of student suicides this year in Kota to 30 also the third such case in one week.  

Kumar, a resident of Saharsa district in Bihar, came to Kota when he was just 13 to improve his performance in physics and mathematics. He was enrolled in class IX at a city school and at a coaching centre for an edge course in science subjects. However records from his institute showed that he was a regular absentee and the centre had informed his parents about their son's behaviour.

Kumar who was living alone in a rented accommodation did not go home even during the winter vacation, when both his school and coaching institute were closed. He was also in Kota during the Diwali break, his hostel owner said.

                    Daily Mail/ Representative Image

Incidentally, the death happened a day after the district administration undertook a major exercise to de-stress coaching students to curb the spate of suicides. Coaching centres were directed to organise activities like painting and singing as part of its 'Masti ki Pathshala' campaign.


Over 1.25 lakh students come to various coaching institutes in Kota every year, with the dream of cracking the competitive entrance exams like IIT JEE and the All India Engineering Entrance Examination.

However, many take the extreme step as they are not able to withstand the high pressure coaching schedule and unable to live up to the family expectations.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

As suicides rise, Kota institutes asked to introduce screening test - Hindustan Times

  • Aabshar Quazi, Hindustan Times, KotaUpdated: Dec 24, 2015 11:35 IST

More than 1,00,000 teenagers head to coaching institutes in Kota every year with the dream of cracking IIT or medical exams. (AH Zaidi/HT file photo)

Students seeking admission to coaching institutes in Rajasthan’s Kota city will have to appear for a screening test from the next academic session, a move spurred by growing incidents of suicides by youngsters allegedly due to performance pressure.

At least 56 students studying in different institutes in the city – about 250 km from capital Jaipur – have committed suicide in the last five years, most of them attributed to the fear of failure.

Official sources said on Wednesday that the norm was introduced by Kota district collector Ravi Kumar Surpur to give parents a fair assessment of their wards’ chances of cracking the highly competitive engineering and medical entrance exams.

The district collector has instructed all institutes to have a screening test for the 2016-17 academic year with common counselling facility for parents. The institutes have three to four months to prepare the module for the test in consultation with the district administration, the sources added.

The quiet southern Rajasthan town attracted just over 10,000 students till early 2000 in seven major institutes but the last few years had seen a major transformation with about 1.25 lakh students taking admission in about 40 institutes this year.

However, just one-fourth of them manage to get admission in professional colleges, leading to high stress levels in a majority of them who come from middle or low income group families.
As the institutes started providing better facilities, their charges also rose with annual fees doubling in the last seven years, putting additional pressure on students.

Gopal Saini, a daily wager turned shopkeeper in Alwar, had borrowed heavily from friends and relatives to support his 17-year-old son Manish’s dream to become a doctor. Manish cracked the examination and got admission into the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) this year.

But there are many like Tara Chand, enrolled in Allen Career Institute, who apparently was not able to cope with the rigour and reportedly committed suicide earlier this year.

“I still don’t know what drove him to commit suicide,” said his father Sohanlal Sirvi, a farmer who took out all his savings to pay for his son’s annual fee of over Rs one lakh.

The reasons for committing suicide are many, says Yaadram Faasal, Kota’s additional superintendant of police, with “failure of the students to meet high expectations of parents” being the most common. Also, living alone away from their families in a rigorous study cycle and high pressure environment also push them to take the extreme step.

An official of the Kota administration said the new system will give parents a chance to opt out and choose an alternate career option for their ward.

Allen Career Institute, Kota, Director, Naveen Maheshwari agreed, saying that the guidelines make screening test mandatory but not rejection of the students.

Students welcomed the move saying there was no harm in filtering students at the time of admissions through screening test since it will prevent below average and undeserving students from falling prey to the study stress of coaching.

“It is good that screening test does not result in rejection as every student should get equal opportunity to improve their educational level,” said Tejaswin Jeengar, a student from Haryana.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life

William Deresiewicz explains how an elite education can lead to a cycle of grandiosity and depression.

                               William Deresiewicz


AUG 19, 2014
The former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz stirred up quite a storm earlier this month with his New Republic essay “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—a damning critique of the nation’s most revered and wealthy educational institutions, and the flawed meritocracy they represent. He takes these arguments even further in his upcoming book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Part cultural commentary, part philosophical treatise on the meaning of education itself, the book reads like a self-help manual for ambitious yet internally adrift adolescents struggling to figure out how to navigate the college system, and ultimately their own lives. Deresiewicz, who is also the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter,spoke to me on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon.

Lauren Cassani Davis: How does the phrase “excellent sheep” describe the typical student at an elite college today?

William Deresiewicz: The most interesting thing about that phrase is that I didn’t write it myself. It came out of the mouth of a student of mine, and just seemed perfect. They’re “excellent” because they have fulfilled all the requirements for getting into an elite college, but it’s very narrow excellence. These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop.

Davis: Do you see a connection between this “hoop-jumping” mindset and other trends, like mental-health issues, on college campuses?
Deresiewicz: The mental-health issues, absolutely. People have written books about this—adolescent therapists like Madeline Levine, who wrote The Price of Privilege. These students are made to understand that they have to be perfect, that they have to do everything perfectly, but they haven’t turned to themselves to ask why they’re doing it. It’s almost like a cruel experiment with animals that we’re performing—every time the red light goes on, you have to push the bar. Of course they’re stressed.
This is also why they’re sheep, because they have never been given an opportunity to develop their ability to find their own direction. They’re always doing the next thing they’re being told to do. The trouble is that at a certain point, the directives stop. Though maybe not, because even when it comes to choosing a career, there are certain chutes that kids, especially at elite colleges, tend to get funneled towards. And if you’ve always been told what you’re going to do, these options are the easiest in terms of making decisions, though not necessarily easiest in terms of the work involved.

Davis: You’ve observed that Ivy League students have an internal struggle with both “grandiosity and depression.” Can you explain this further?
Deresiewicz: Alice Miller wrote about this 30-plus years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child, but I had to experience it to see it for myself. The grandiosity is that sense of “you’re the greatest, you’re the best, you’re the brightest.” This kind of praise and reinforcement all the time makes students feel they’re the greatest kid in the world. And I would say that this is even worse than when I was a kid. Now there’s a whole culture of parenting around this positive reinforcement.
These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. As Miller says, what you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless.
These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless. And that kind of all-or-nothing mentality really pervades the whole system. It’s also why it’s Harvard or the gutter: If you don’t get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, it’s a disgrace. If you go to Wesleyan, you can never show your face in public again.
“These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless.”
This is not really the only way to succeed, but this crazy definition not only of success, but of how you achieve success, doesn’t even really reflect how actually successful people achieve success. Steve Jobs is an obvious example, because he was obviously very gifted and ambitious but he took a circuitous path, and people who are very successful doing interesting things also often take circuitous paths.
This notion that you’ve got to do X, Y, and Z or else your life is over makes you end up as a high-functioning sheep. You end up being the kind of leader that I talk about in the last section of the book. You get to the top, or you get near the top, but you don’t actually do anything interesting there—you just sort of fulfill your function in the organization. You don’t initiate or create.

Davis: That ties in with your argument that words like “leadership” and “service” have become hollow in the whole college process.
Deresiewicz: There’s a list of things that everyone knows you’re supposed to do to get into college: scores, extracurriculars, and then these two other things, “leadership” and “service.” They’ve been completely ritualized, and kids have become cynical about them because they know they just need to demonstrate them. In the case of leadership, which is supposed to be about qualities of character, self-sacrifice, initiative, and vision, it just means getting to the top, and that’s all. If you get a position with some authority you are, by definition, a leader. And service, if anything, is even worse. Service is supposed to be about making the world a better place or helping people who are less fortunate, but because it’s done for the resume, it really just becomes about yourself.

Davis: You argue that society transmits its values through education. How would you summarize the values transmitted through the elite-education system?
Deresiewicz: I would summarize the values by quoting Tony Hayward, the famous CEO of BP. In the middle of this giant environmental disaster he said, “I want to get my life back.” He had been promised certain rewards and now had this horrible experience of actually having to take responsibility for something, and feel bad. So those are the values that the system is transmitting: self-aggrandizement, being in service to yourself, a good life defined exclusively in terms of conventional markers of success (wealth and status), no real commitment to education or learning, to thinking, and no real commitment to making the world a better place. And I think we see that in the last 50 years, the meritocracy has created a world that’s getting better and better for the meritocracy and worse and worse for everyone else.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Student suicides: Implement rules or face action, says collector

Student suicides: Implement rules or face action, says collector

  • Aabshar H Quazi, Hindustan Times, KotaUpdated: Dec 22, 2015 16:37 IST
Seventeen students have allegedly committed suicide due to academic stress in Kota this year. (Representative photo)

District collector Ravi Kumar Surpur on Monday warned coaching institutes and hostels that criminal proceedings would be initiated against them if they failed to comply with the administration’s guidelines to check student suicides.

Seventeen students have allegedly committed suicide due to academic stress in Kota this year.

Over 1.25 lakh students take coaching for IIT-JEE, AIPMT and other engineering/medical entrance examinations at coaching institutes in Kota every year.

Surpur reviewed the pace of implementation of the guidelines issued by the district administration in November during a meeting with owners of coaching institutes and hostels in the collectorate.

The administration had issued a list of guidelines to the institutes last month to check stress among students.
It had asked the coaching institutes to recruit psychiatrists or counsellors, introduce meditation and recreational activities, conduct screening tests, segregate batches and give more weekly breaks among other steps to alleviate pressure on students.

The collector expressed displeasure over the inadequate progress on the guidelines, especially low recruitment of counsellors and lack of recreational facilities at the institutes.
“Institutes must develop infrastructure for recreation which should include some physical activities like sports,” he said. The institutes should also ensure weekly offs to relax the pressure on students and keep check absenteeism.

The collector also asked the institutes to not glorify selections in competitive examinations and instead inculcate competitive skills among students.

“Institutions should conduct group counselling of the students and if possible of their parents during the session starting from January 15, 2016,” he said.

Representatives of major coaching institutes including Allen Career Institute, Bansal Classes, Vibrant, Aakash and Resonance and also hostel associations attended the meeting.

Stress pushes yet another student to suicide in Kota

Stress pushes yet another student to suicide in Kota

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, KotaUpdated: Dec 23, 2015 13:47 IST
According to the Kota City Police records, this was the eighteenth incident of coaching students committing suicide in Kota so far. (Representative photo)

Bogged down by study-related stress, an IIT-JEE aspirant from Dholpur committed suicide in Danbari area of Kota City on Tuesday.

Jawahar Nagar circle inspector Rajesh Meshram said that 21-year-old Shivdutt Singh, hailing from Kolari region in Dholpur district, was found hanging from the ceiling fan of his rented room.

“Soon after being informed about the incident by the victim’s roommates, police arrived at the scene and recovered the deceased’s body,” he said, adding that they had to break into the room because the door was bolted from inside.
Shivdutt had arrived at Kota in April this year, and enrolled himself in one of its premier coaching centres.

Stating that the deceased had bemoaned not being able to “fulfill his parents’ dreams” in his suicide note, Meshram said study-related stress could be the reason behind him taking the extreme step.

The police officer said Shivdutt’s post-mortem examination would be conducted on Wednesday, once his parents have arrived in the city.

According to the Kota City Police records, this was the eighteenth incident of coaching students committing suicide in Kota so far.

Incidents like this have prompted the state government to frame guidelines for coaching institutes and hostels in Kota. A review meeting in this regard was held here on Monday.
Around 1.25 lakh students arrive in Kota every year for enrolling in over half-a-dozen institutes that specialise in coaching students for engineering and medical entrance exams.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Women biker in Doon to spread awareness against suicide - TNN

Shivani Saxena, TNN | Dec 17, 2015, 10.36PM IST

Twenty-seven-year-old Sana Iqbal from Hyderabad, who has covered over 5,200 km and 10 cities in the country riding on her bike, to spread awareness against suicide and depression is now in Dehradun.

Iqbal is running an awareness campaign on suicide, identification of suicidal traits and its prevention and chronicling her journey on bike, to spread the message of happiness across states. She is in Doon till Saturday and will be holding sessions in various colleges in the city.

Speaking with TOI, Sana Iqbal said, "I learnt how to ride a bike when I was in class VII from my uncle and it is like meditation to me. I faced depression myself and fought suicidal tendencies. I realized we often refrain from speaking about such things and youngsters specially have a hard time opening about their emotional breakdown. Some also take escape routes like drugs to deal with it and they must be made aware about the dangers of drug abuse."

"After my personal experience with depression, I decided I need to create an awareness that being sad is not even an option, it is just the wrong choice! Hence, I started with my journey on the bike across various cities in India and have so far covered almost 8 cities and interacted with over 5,000 students over how to spread happiness and combat depression. I have spoken to youth in Roorkee and Haridwar on December 16 and I am really looking forward to speak to students in Dehradun till Saturday."

Iqbal specified that this is her first visit to Uttarakhand and she would definitely like to come back. She said, "Intriguingly, most of the youngsters have relationship issues. They either are dealing with break-ups or some are depressed due to not having a special someone. They need to know this is not the end of the world and there is help out there like some NGOs where they can call and share their feelings."

"I feel a woman rider on a mission to spread happiness is a really cool thing to do. I asked her ways to handle depression in case if I ever feel that low in life. One must be prepared and she quite methodically mentioned how to speak about such things, have emotional talks with the close people and to be realistic," said Prajjwal Singh, a student preparing for his IIT entrance, who attended one of Iqbal's sessions.

Iqbal started off her ride on November 23 from Goa and intends to cover 40,000 km on her bike in a span of six months covering at least 1 to 5 colleges on her way in each state. So far, she has covered over 5,200 km and 10 cities including Pune, Gwalior, Agra, Indore, Bhopal, Haridwar, Roorkee and now Doon. After Doon, the wandering biker might leave for Ludhiana or Chandigarh.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

IIT aspirant commits suicide in Kota - Business Standard

Press Trust of India  |  Kota 
December 5, 2015 Last Updated at 13:32 IST

A 17-year-old IIT aspirant, who was studying at a coaching institute here, allegedly hanged herself at a relative's residence, the incident being the second suicide case reported in last two days.

The body of Satakshi Gupta, who was preparing for IIT-JEE examination at a coaching institute here, was found hanging from the ceiling fan of her room at her aunt's place in Jawaharnagar area, SHO Jawaharnagar Rajesh Mehathram said.

Satakshi, a resident of Ghaziabad, had been staying at her aunt's residence for last six years.

According to her relatives, Satakshi remained in her room yesterday and did not come out even at 6.30 pm which is usually when she starts from home for her coaching insitute.

When she did not respond to repeated knocks, the family members broke open the door and found the girl's body hanging from the ceiling fan, Mehathram said.

Satakshi did not leave any suicide note behind, the SHO said, adding that the relatives claimed that she had not showed any sign of depression or study pressure.

"Police is trying to find out what could be reason behind the extreme step," he added.

This is the second suicide case by a coaching institute student in Kota in last two days.

On Thursday, an 18-year-old boy preparing for competitive medical exams had allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself from a ceiling fan at his rented room in Kunadhi area.

IIT aspirant hangs herself in Kota; second suicide in as many days - Hindustan Times

IIT aspirant hangs herself in Kota; second suicide in as many days
  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, KotaUpdated: Dec 05, 2015 13:36 IST
Representative Photo. (Shutterstock image)

A coaching student preparing for the IIT-JEE examination committed suicide in Kota on Friday, hanging herself at a relative’s house.

The girl, who has been identified as 17-year-old Satakshi Gupta, was from Bihar, though her father Kamlesh Kumar works in Ghaziabad. She had been living at her aunt’s house in Instrumentation Limited (IL) Colony. Her aunt had expired in August this year.

Rajesh Meshram, station house officer of Jawahar Nagar Police Station, said that the police received information of the incident, following which they rushed to the spot and recovered the dead body which was found hanging in the room.

“The student was living with her aunt in Kota from last 5-6 years for her studies and was preparing for IIT-JEE Examination”, Meshram said. He also said that no suicide note was found, but gave stress due to studies as a possible reason.
Satakshi’s death is the second suicide of a student in as many days to take place inKota. On Thursday, 19-year-old Varun Jeengar of Ludhiana had hanged himself in his paying guest accommodation in the Adarsh Nagar area of the City.

According to data released by National Crime Records Bureau, Kota has registered 100 suicide cases in 2014 and 45 of them were coaching students.

Since October, at least eight students have killed themselves in the city.

More than 1,00,000 teenagers head to coaching institutes in Kota every year with dreams of cracking the highly competitive entrance exams. The rigorous study schedule, high-pressure environment, competitive exams and stress of living pushes many students to commit suicide.

“Parents on average spend around `2.50 lakh to `3 lakh every year on coaching. When their children find themselves lagging, they feel guilty and can go into depression,” police officer Bhagwat Singh Hingad said.

The Kota district administration had issued guidelines for the coaching Institutes and hostels on November 4 in an attempt to avert suicide by students. The suggestions included carrying out student counselling, weekly breaks from classes, meditation, yoga and recreation activities.

Kota suicide rerun - Telegraph India

Our Correspondent
Jaipur, Dec. 3: 

A student from Punjab was found hanging in Kota today, taking to a dozen the number of suicides in the medical and IIT coaching hub so far this year.

Police said they had found a handwritten note in Varun Punjabi's hostel room saying nobody was responsible for his suicide and that his parents should pardon him for the extreme step.

The police suspected stress - the reason cited in most other cases - as the cause but the director of the institute where Varun had been preparing for medical entrance exams said the 18-year-old from Ludhiana had attended barely 10 days of classes since taking admission this August.

"His friends say he had been quiet for the past few days. His parents are on the way. It could be because of stress too. But it is difficult now to ascertain the exact cause," said Kota police chief Sawai Singh Godara.

Naveen Maheshwari, the director of Allen Career Institute where Varun was enrolled, said: "Varun was a dropper, which means he had cleared his Class XII last year. We have been sending an absentee notice to his parents regularly. The case may be not because of academic stress. It may be due to family problems. We have regular counselling for those who need it."

Asked about the increasing suicides in the coaching hub, Maheshwari said Kota was "singled out because of the sheer numbers". "Students around the nation are under pressure, though coping alone in a city (Kota) for the first time also unnerves students."#

Counsellors believe that stress is inevitable in Kota, with its 14-hour daily grinds and pressure from the annual fees of Rs 70,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh the students' parents have to shell out. The police reported 14 suicides in 2014 and 26 in 2013

Thursday, December 3, 2015

WHAT IS SUCCESS? I failed to get into an IIT—and 10 years later I could not be happier - Quartz

With blinders on. (Maria Corte for Quartz)

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are among the most difficult schools in the world to get into. The University of Oxford accepts one out of five applicants. IITs take in just one out of 50. So it is little wonder that for any Indian child with ambitions of becoming an engineer, getting into an IIT looks like the pinnacle of achievement.

It certainly looked that way to me. Growing up in the 1990s in Nashik, a city of about 1.5 million people, I looked up to my dad—a mechanical engineer from one of the top regional engineering schools. I wanted to be like him, or even better. The only way to do that, my little brain thought then, was to go to an even more prestigious school: the IIT.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned. To be precise, I failed. But the years I spent working towards the goal changed me forever. More than 10 years later, I could not have achieved more success or happiness. And, most importantly, my parents could not be prouder.

A single-track mind
When I was growing up, you couldn’t go many days without hearing or reading about how IIT graduates were changing the face of the country and having an impact even beyond. They had in their ranks the likes of Narayana Murthy (a founder of Infosys), Vinod Khosla (a founder of Sun Microsystems), and Raghuram Rajan (governor of the Reserve Bank of India). Newspapers never missed an opportunity to tell the world about the top salaries that were being offered to IIT graduates. Among doting parents and aspiring kids, IITians were treated with the kind of reverence that Indians only gave to players in the country’s cricket team. (Things aren’t much different today.)

The way into the IITs is to succeed at the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), and in the last few decades a whole industry has been set up to find ways to crack the JEE. In class 8, four years before I was due to take the entrance exam, my mother bought me a subscription to an IIT coaching service.

Every few months I received thick textbooks that covered advanced physics, chemistry, and mathematics. With the help of a college professor, those advanced textbooks served me well till class 10. Then, when I was 15, my parents enrolled me in a coaching class in Nashik.

Coaching classes for JEE were compulsory. They were an antidote to the rote-learning culture that state board education promoted. The JEE was designed to test your understanding of the subject, not your memory of it. The questions challenged you to use the many concepts you’d learned and put them together to arrive at the answers.

The next two years were tough. Preparing for the JEE became an all-consuming task. As I became more focused on achieving the goal, I had already given up sports, music, and video games. Soon I also stopped socialising with other students much.

So those who attended the IIT coaching class formed a tight group. We spent hours, often late into the night, solving problems. Despite becoming very good friends, we were competitors. Only a tiny fraction were going to pass the JEE, and our competitors were the smartest minds of our age in the country.

There was also a psychological cost. Thoughts of failure often crossed our minds. I worried about getting sick; another friend imagined getting in an accident on the way to the exam. One friend ran away from home the day before the exam. He was eventually found near a local dam, considering jumping down into the river. (He now lives in a monastery.)

Industrialised coaching
The JEE is conducted in two stages. The first, when I took it in 2004, consisted of multiple choice questionnaires for different subjects. About one in 10 people got through to the next stage, which had questions that required descriptive answers. How you approached the question mattered as much as the answer.

I passed the first stage but failed in the second (specifically, in the chemistry paper). No one from Nashik I knew got through both stages that year. At the back of our minds, we all knew that we could face failure. But I wasn’t really prepared for it. Who knew that an exam result could cause stomach-wrenching pain?

It was the first major failure of my life. For weeks, I was depressed and felt stuck in limbo. My parents assured me that it was OK, but I couldn’t get rid of the deep sense of shame.

Fortunately, depression turned to anger and then resolve. I wanted another go. Now that I was 17, my parents felt comfortable sending me to Kota, a small city in the state of Rajasthan, whose handful of coaching centers were consistently producing results many times better than those of any other coaching class in the country.

There I would spend another year preparing with even more intensity.

The first week in Kota was exciting. Staying away from my parents for the first time was wonderful. The freedom felt like power. But the joys quickly disappeared.

Although I was still in India, it felt like I had come to a place with an alien culture. Students didn’t mix very much. When they did, they only talked about that day’s problems, next day’s classes, or something else academic. If there were any non-academic discussions, it was gossip about other coaching classes (or about the rare girl someone had in their class). The only recreational activity was to play computer games at an internet cafe, and even that was frowned upon.

However, what affected me the most was the constant discussion about failure. Every so often someone would share a tale they had heard about some student who committed suicide because he had failed at the JEE. (Suicides in Kota are no longer a rare phenomenon. Nine students have committed suicide in the last five months.)

The final straw was when I started to hear about friends being admitted to other engineering schools. I had come to Kota resolved to forget failure and do nothing but prepare for the JEE, but I was so focused on my studies that I had almost forgotten about this important event in my friends’ lives. And, though I should not have, I felt jealous that they had a better place to be than Kota.

There is usually a delay of a few weeks between getting results from various entrance exams, including the JEE, and starting at an engineering school. In 2004, because of some bureaucratic mess, the delay had been stretched to a few months.

These other entrance exams were supposed to be an insurance policy against failing at the JEE. For me, however, they were just an additional burden, and I didn’t take them too seriously. The All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE, now scrapped) was one of them, and I slept in the exam hall for the last 30 minutes, having finished one of the papers early.

So it came as a surprise when, in the middle of a class in August, I learned that I had been accepted at the University Institute of Chemical Technology (UICT) based on my AIEEE results. Among those in the know—mostly chemical engineers—UICT was the IIT of chemical engineering. It boasted some big names as its alumni, and to my delight it was among the few engineering schools based in the heart of Mumbai.

I had come to Kota because I wasn’t ready to settle for anything but the best. Suddenly the equation had changed. Would it really be worth spending an extra year of my life to get into an IIT when UICT might just be good enough? I wasn’t so sure, but the possibility of a life in Mumbai among happier teenagers broke my resolve.

“Akku, please think carefully before you decide whether to leave Kota for this,” my mum said. But my mind was made up and my bags were packed.

Dogged focus
Though many of the students at UICT had, like me, failed to get into an IIT in their first or second attempt at the JEE, the mood among them was optimistic. It took me six months to figure out why.

Education at UICT was slightly different from those in other Indian engineering schools. There was an unusual amount of stress on research, something that even the best of the IITs couldn’t compete with. Most professors were actively involved in research and often had many PhD students working for them. This was unusual for India, which, despite producing the world’s largest number of engineers and doctors, ranks among the lowest in the world in terms of research output.

Many students at UICT of course wanted well-paid jobs in the chemical industry. But there was also great interest in pursuing research at undergraduate level and beyond. By December, we had started hearing news about final year students getting PhD places at some of the world best universities: MIT, Cambridge, Caltech, Stanford, and others.

This exposure to a new way of thinking about my career changed my dreams. Perhaps it was not being under the shadow of my parents that gave me the freedom to think for myself, but more likely it was the effect of my professors and their exceptional research students. I no longer wanted a corporate job, but a PhD. The intellectual thrill of discovering something new was inspiring.

And so I was soon consumed by the desire to find a place at a top-notch university for a research degree. The Indian education system is too exam-oriented, but it also trains you to put on horse-like blinders and focus single-mindedly on achieving a goal. Looking back, I can see that my failed attempts of getting into an IIT enabled me to excel when it came to pursuing this new ambition.

In the ivory tower
After UICT, I got a place at the University of Oxford to get a doctorate in organic chemistry. Soon after I got to Oxford, the limitations of India’s education system truly became clear. The Indian system mints students in highly specialised institutes, such as the IITs and UICT, with great abilities in the areas we choose to study, but little knowledge of other critical subjects.

Although I knew that Western universities offered students courses in all subjects under the sun, I wasn’t quite prepared for socialising with, say, a student of literature. In hindsight, what probably saved me was my curiosity. I must have looked stupid to some, asking basic questions that probably only high-school students would ask. (I asked a historian: what is the point of studying history anyway?) Yet every conversation taught me a bit more about the world I had missed out on while studying chemistry and physics.

Finishing my doctorate was the toughest thing I had ever done. And yet, the most valuable thing I took away from Oxford was not the degree. Instead, the open academic environment, world-class researchers, and brilliant students had peeled away the blinders put on me by the Indian education system. At 25, for the first time in my life, I felt free. I was not burdened by my parents’ expectations for me to get a good degree, the pressure of Indian society to make something of my “valuable” bachelor’s or doctorate, or the hopes of my 12-year-old self to become “better” than my dad.

Of course, I could not have gotten the doctorate without the skills I had acquired in India. But Oxford enabled me to see a bigger world. After finishing my PhD, I chose to become a journalist. Three years into that career choice, and more than 10 years after I had failed at the JEE, I could not be happier.

Who knows what would have happened had I made it into an IIT. But I am happy today that I did not. From my core group of friends at UICT, all four of whom failed to get into an IIT in their first attempt, only one is still doing something related to engineering. One is an actor, another is in advertising, and I’m a journalist. Failure enabled us—forced us—to truly discover ourselves.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Silicon Valley Suicides - The Atlantic.Com

The Silicon Valley Suicides

Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?

The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.

In many parts of town, you can hear the warning of a passing train just about everywhere: the quad at Palo Alto High School; the tables at Piazza’s grocery store, where kids from Gunn High School hang out after school; the kids’ bedrooms after midnight.
A few students had gotten in early to take some photos dressed as Scooby-Doo characters, part of an annual volleyball-team tradition. Now one of them, Alyssa See-Tho, was waiting outside the choir room for first period to start. Slowly, classmates began to join her. Through the windows, they could spy the teachers packed in there. In the other classrooms of Henry M. Gunn High School, about 1,900 kids waited. After a few minutes the teachers filed out, each holding a sheet of paper, none talking. Alyssa took her seat inside. It was November 4, 2014, a few days after homecoming and maybe a month before college applications would start making everyone crazy. The teacher read a statement containing the words took his own life last night, and then a name, Cameron Lee. Alyssa’s first thought: Is there another Cameron Lee at our school?, because the one she knew was popular and athletic and seemingly unbothered by schoolwork, an avid practitioner of the annoying prank of turning people’s backpacks inside out.

Alex Gil got to school a little late that day and saw people crying in the hallways. The principal, Denise Herrmann, stopped him and told him, because she knew he was one of Cameron’s best friends, and he fell to his knees. He thought about a text Cameron had sent him the day before. Cameron had gone to tryouts for varsity basketball but hadn’t yet gotten his required physical, so he had asked whether Alex thought he could get in to see the doctor the next day. He must have sent the text only a few hours before he died.

In her creative-writing class later that day, Tarn Wilson asked how many people were friends with Cameron, and a third of the students raised a hand. She then asked how many had been in a class with him, and everyone’s hand went up. The kids were usually “silly and joyful,” she later said, but that period, they were “utterly and completely silent.”

That morning the school district’s superintendent, Glenn “Max” McGee, called Kim Diorio, the principal of the system’s other public high school, Palo Alto High, to warn her, “This is going to hit everyone really hard.” McGee was new to the district that year, but he’d known the history when he took the job. The 10-year suicide rate for the two high schools is between four and five times the national average. Starting in the spring of 2009 and stretching over nine months, three Gunn students, one incoming freshman, and one recent graduate had put themselves in front of an oncoming Caltrain. Another recent graduate had hung himself. While the intervening years had been quieter, they had not been comforting. School counselors remained “overwhelmed and overloaded” with an influx of kids considered high risk, says Roni Gillenson, who has helped oversee Gunn’s mental-health program since 2006. Twelve percent of Palo Alto high-school students surveyed in the 2013–14 school year reported having seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months.

In McGee’s third month on the job, about three weeks before Cameron’s death, a girl from a local private school had jumped off an overpass. Then, a day later, a kid who’d graduated from Gunn the year before, Quinn Gens, had killed himself on the tracks. Now it was not even Thanksgiving, and two students affiliated with Gunn were already dead.

Suicide clusters—defined as multiple deaths in close succession and proximity—feed on viral news, which feeds on social connections. McGee and the other administrators worried about vulnerable students reading too many details and overidentifying with Cameron. He had played basketball for years, so he knew people at both public high schools in town; his sister was in middle school; he seemed to have friends everywhere, and the grief was gathering momentum. Diorio had been the head of guidance at Palo Alto High (“Paly,” as it’s known in the community) in 2009 and 2010, during the last suicide cluster, but the big differences this time, she told me, were smartphones and social media. All day long, kids at Paly could get updates from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. By second period many already knew it was the Caltrain, again. That day, like every day, you could hear the train from most of the classrooms, passing every 20 minutes or so. That day, one student later told me, the warning whistle seemed like the cannon that goes off in The Hunger Games every time a kid dies.

Interview with Hanna Rosin

Atlantic national correspondent Hannah Rosin explains the research behind her December cover story.

Thankfully, or maybe eerily, the school district was stocked with suicide-prevention experts: professionals from Stanford and amateurs who’d become deeply knowledgeable in recent years. After the 2009–10 cluster, the school district had put together a comprehensive post-suicide “toolkit” and trained the staff on what to do to help prevent another cluster from developing. Statistically, that had been unlikely. “Echo clusters,” meaning second clusters in the same location within a decade, are extremely rare. Gunn’s teachers were told they could have a substitute for the day if they felt too traumatized. Grief counselors roamed the school grounds, making themselves available to the groups of students who were standing around crying. Staff checked in with students who were thought to be especially vulnerable.

In training, they’d learned that one key to heading off copycats was not romanticizing the death, so they struggled to hit just the right tone. They had to avoid turning Cameron into a hero or a martyr without insulting his memory or his devastated family. They had to make a space for the kids to grieve without letting wreath-and-teddy-bear memorials take over the campus. In 2009, to commemorate Jean-Paul “J.P.” Blanchard, the first kid in that cluster to die on the tracks, students had spread rose petals all over the school. Tarn Wilson recalls them as beautiful and haunting but also morbid, and exactly the kind of prop that a depressed teenager might imagine as a backdrop to his own future tragedy.

The night after Cameron’s death, some classmates sneaked onto campus and chalked it up with messages like we love you cameron and rip cameron—but administrators talked with students and, after a day, had the messages erased. Eventually some students decided to hold a memorial service off campus, at a local elementary school. One of the people who planned it was Isabelle Blanchard, the junior-class president that year—and one of J.P.’s younger sisters. “I am 15 years old and I just organized a memorial,” she said to her mother, Kathleen, when she got home.

Implicit in her weary statement of fact was the underlying question: Why? How could it be that they all lived in a place that inspired jealousy from out-of-towners, where the coolest gadgets and ideas come from, where the optimism is boundless, and where, as Kathleen put it to me somewhat sardonically, “people are working on inventions that will slow aging and probably one day stop death”—and yet also a place where a junior in high school is closely familiar with the funerals of other teens?

In the nearly five years since the last cluster, many Palo Alto parents had allowed themselves to drift into a hazy and self-protective way of thinking: The kids who killed themselves must have been social outcasts or victims of clear mental illness; at the very least they must have been obviously struggling. Cameron’s death made it hard to maintain that narrative, because “he was like everyone’s kid,” says one parent whose son was a friend of his. “The prevailing feeling was: What’s the difference between this kid and my kid? Nothing. There is no safe space. My kid could be next.

At an impromptu gathering at the Lee family’s house that afternoon, Cameron’s father read his suicide note aloud. In it, Cameron explained that his death had nothing to do with school, friends, or family. The note provided no clear reason for what he’d done, and the community was desperate for one. The only anomaly anyone could identify was that Cameron never seemed to sleep. Alex Gil told me that if you were up at 3 a.m. on a Saturday and needed someone to go to Happy Donuts with you, Cameron was your man. And throughout the week, he was typically on Twitter or Snapchat late at night. When Alex once asked why he was always up at odd hours, Cameron told him he was doing homework. That was standard around town, to humble-brag about staying up all night to study. But Alex, his friend since kindergarten, didn’t believe him. “Cam was really good with time management,” he told me. “He was a great student, all A’s. He didn’t really worry about school. It came easy to him.”

Palo Alto’s commuter train has become a common instrument of teen suicide—and a constant reminder of lives lost. (Brian L. Frank)

Some three months after Cameron Lee’s suicide, and about four months after that of Quinn Gens, Harry Lee, a Gunn senior unrelated to Cameron, killed himself by jumping from the roof of a building. One suicide cluster could be anomalous. In the United States, there are about five youth clusters a year. But now Palo Alto was well into its second. You’d have to be blind or stupid not to see a pattern, and Palo Alto’s parents were neither. Seventy-four percent of Gunn students have at least one parent with a graduate degree. They’d moved their families to that school district because they know how to do their research. Last year, Gunn was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s top five stem schools. Every year, about 20 of its seniors get into Stanford, which is just two miles away, and a quarter are offered spots at University of California schools, which are notoriously competitive these days.

Since I went to Stanford, in the early ’90s, the surrounding public schools have been utterly transformed by the tech explosion. Gunn, and to a lesser extent Palo Alto High School, is legendary all over the world. Steve Jobs’s old house is in the neighborhood. Chinese patriarchs buy homes in the community and send their families, so their kids can go to school there. Parents sacrifice vacations and plan their budgets carefully so they can afford a house in the district. (The college friends I stayed with while reporting this story—both full-time physicians—got priced out of their rental during the school year and had to move out of the district, to nearby San Mateo.)

Gunn is a distillation of what elite parents expect from a school.

Today Gunn is like countless other high-achieving high schools in countless other affluent communities—New York; Washington, D.C.; Dallas; Greenwich, Connecticut; Seattle; Los Angeles—only more so. It is an extreme distillation of what parents in the meritocratic elite expect from a school. The opportunities are limitless and the competition is tough and the pleasant chatter among the parents concerns chances for enrichment. Kids are tracked into “lanes” in math and science and English, which become a big part of their social identity. The school always sends a handful of students to the math and biology Olympiads, and typically some of them place in the top 10 percent. Layered on top of that is the usual array of extracurriculars expected at any affluent school, where it’s okay to have fun as long as that’s not all you’re doing. The robotics team almost always scores near the top in one of the nation’s biggest competitions. The school’s 2013 musical was voted the best youth production in the San Francisco region on BroadwayWorld.com. A recent tedx event was the largest ever held at any American high school. And that’s to say nothing of the prizewinning apps and inventions created by individual students.
But in the e-mails traded among parents in the weeks after Cameron’s death, the obvious worry surfaced about whether all this emphasis on excellence imposed a cost on the kids—a worry that is also beginning to show up in parenting books and op‑eds in newspapers all over the country. Julie Lythcott-Haims, a parent of two and a former freshman dean at Stanford, summarized the prevailing sentiment of those autumn e-mails as: What are we doing to our kids? Palo Alto Online, a community news site, tried to maintain decorum in the comment sections, but the anguish and guilt spilled over. “I think we have to look at the attitude of all the adults in this community,” one person wrote. “It is we who are to blame putting the pressure on the kids to succeed … No amount of school counselling will change the parents’ attitudes.” Another insisted: “There are ways to teach students so they learn but are not tortured.”

The night after Cameron’s death, a sophomore at Gunn named Martha Cabot put up a YouTube video that eventually logged more than 80,000 views, and comments from parents all over the country. Sitting in her bedroom in a T-shirt, with curls falling loose from her ponytail, she confirmed many parents’ worst fears about themselves. “The amount of stress on a student is ridiculous,” Martha said. “Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements.” She was recording the video mostly for parents, she explained, because apparently it took a suicide to get adults to pay attention. “We’ll do just fine, even though we got a B‑minus on that chem test,” she said. “And no, I won’t join the debate team for you.”

Had parents really given their kids the idea that they had to perform? That their love had to be earned with A’s and Advanced Placement tests and trophies? They hadn’t meant to. Yet there, from one of their own kids, was the rebuke that in this community, no place or time or language existed that allowed kids to be vulnerable, much less broken, or even just to be: “We love our moms and we love our dads,” Martha said. “But calm down.”

In the late 1990s, when she was an assistant professor in Yale’s psychiatry department, Suniya Luthar was doing research at an inner-city school in Connecticut. She wanted to know whether misbehavior correlated more with poverty or with a stage of adolescence. She needed a second school to use as a comparison. An undergraduate student she worked with had connections at a school in a Connecticut suburb that was more upscale, and Luthar got permission to distribute her surveys there. The results were not what she expected. In the inner-city school, 86 percent of students received free or reduced-price lunches; in the suburban school, 1 percent did. Yet in the richer school, the proportion of kids who smoked, drank, or used hard drugs was significantly higher—as was the rate of serious anxiety and depression. This anomaly started Luthar down a career-long track studying the vulnerabilities of students within what she calls “a culture of affluence.” I called Luthar, now a professor at Arizona State University, in March to find out whether the anxiety she was recording amounted to familiar teenage angst or something more serious. As it happened, she was about to fly to Palo Alto. A meeting on adolescents and suicide, hosted by Stanford’s psychiatry department, had been organized in a hurry. Earlier that month a fifth kid had killed himself, Byron Zhu, a 15-year-old sophomore at Palo Alto High. He had walked in front of an early-morning northbound train. The police were still at the scene when kids were biking to school that morning; the principal, who had rushed over, asked the police to put up a special barrier so they wouldn’t see.

What disturbs Levine most is that the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. They have no sense of agency.

Luthar had been invited to give a presentation on affluent youth as a largely unrecognized at-risk group. Convincing people that rich kids are at high risk isn’t easy, she said. But she has amassed the most thorough data set we have on that group, from schools scattered across the country. Luthar’s data come from school districts where families have median incomes of more than $200,000, and private schools where tuition is close to $30,000 a year. Her research suggests a U‑shaped curve in pathologies among children, by class. At each extreme—poor and rich—kids are showing unusually high rates of dysfunction. On the surface, the rich kids seem to be thriving. They have cars, nice clothes, good grades, easy access to health care, and, on paper, excellent prospects. But many of them are not navigating adolescence successfully.

The rich middle- and high-school kids Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average. Starting in seventh grade, the rich cohort includes just as many kids who display troubling levels of delinquency as the poor cohort, although the rule-breaking takes different forms. The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating, and theft.

After years of hearing Gunn referred to as “the suicide school,” students are rallying around their high school. (Brian L. Frank)
“We assume that because [these kids] have money and a good education, everything is fine,” Luthar says. And in the long run, money and education will protect them. But in adolescence, the dangers posed by the culture of affluence can be “quite potent.” That doesn’t mean rich kids are more likely to kill themselves. Studies on youth suicide have generally turned up few differences among social classes. But it does mean many are deeply suffering.

One of the two major causes of distress, Luthar found, was the “pressure to excel at multiple academic and extracurricular pursuits.” In one study, for example, kids were asked to choose and rank their parents’ top five values, from a list of 10. Half of the values were related to achievement (“attend a good college,” “make a lot of money,” “excel academically”), and the other half to well-being and personal character (“are honest,” “are kind to others,” “are generally happy with yourself and your life”). When the kids chose a greater number of achievement-related goals, that usually correlated with personal troubles, Luthar said.

The kids were also asked how much they identified with sentences such as “The fewer mistakes I make, the more people will like me” and “If someone does a task at work/school better than I, then I feel like I failed the whole task.” From their answers, Luthar constructed a profile of elite American adolescents whose self-worth is tied to their achievements and who see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success. Because a certain kind of success seems well within reach, they feel they have to attain it at all costs—a phenomenon she refers to as “I can, therefore I must.” Middle-class kids, she told me, generally do not live with the expectation that they should go to Stanford or earn $200,000 a year. “If I’ve never been to the moon,” she said of middle-class families, “why would I expect my kids to go there?” The yardstick for the children of the meritocratic elite is different, and it can intimidate as much as it can empower.

The second major cause of distress that Luthar identified was perhaps more surprising: Affluent kids felt remarkably isolated from their parents. When I wrote “The Overprotected Kid” for this magazine last year, I assumed that the brand of helicopter parenting I described as typical of my cohort involved a trade-off. Parents might be sheltering their kids, but at least they were more emotionally in tune with them than, say, the parents of the ’70s divorce generation were with their children. Luthar disabused me of this comforting narrative. The kids in the affluent communities she studied felt their parents to be no more available to them, either emotionally or physically, than the kids in severe poverty did.

Some of the measures Luthar used were objective: Did the family eat dinner together, or hang out in the evenings? Here, she discovered that some busy parents would leave adolescents alone in the afternoon and evening and often weren’t home at all during those hours. She also measured the kids’ feelings of closeness—“My father understands me,” or “My mother knows when I am upset.” Here again Luthar saw a fissure: Children had the sense that their parents monitored their activities and cared deeply about how they were spending their time, but that didn’t translate into feeling close. Many children felt they were being prodded toward very specific goals and behaviors by parental cues, some subtle, some less so. Their parents glowed warmly when they did well in school or sports but seemed let down when they didn’t. Often the kids learned to hide their failures—real or imagined—for fear of disappointing their parents. Other research has shown that a feeling of closeness to parents was inversely linked to household income, meaning that the most-affluent kids felt the most alienated. “It’s mind-boggling,” Luthar says. “We are comparing them to a group of parents we think of as being in dire straits—largely single mothers on welfare whose circumstances are assumed to affect the quality of their parenting. And yet kids from these affluent families, mostly Caucasian, say they feel no closer to their parents than the poor kids do.”

Luthar’s research was incorporated into the 2006 best seller The Price of Privilege, by Madeline Levine, a child psychologist who practices in the Bay Area. She reported that the adolescents she was encountering would “complain bitterly of being too pressured, misunderstood, anxious, angry, sad, and empty.” In the past couple of years, other best sellers have sounded a similar note. William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor who contributes to this magazine, argues in Excellent Sheep that elite education “manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania warns of the dangers of insisting that admission to an elite college is necessary for a successful life.

Carolyn Walworth wrote on a local news site of a deep sickness in the community. (Brian L. Frank)

After leaving Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Haims wrote a book, published in June, called How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. In it, she confesses that as a dean, she had interacted with students who relied on their parents “in ways that felt, simply, off” and who seemed “existentially impotent.” She detailed the growing mental-health crisis at colleges, and described the brilliant, accomplished students who “would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that this outwardly successful situation was their miserable life.”

I’ve read all these books, and so have many of my friends. We have kids this age, or about to be this age, and yet somehow we can’t absorb the message. I didn’t, really, until I spent some time in Palo Alto.

Since Levine wrote The Price of Privilege, she’s watched the stress in the Bay Area and in affluent communities all over the country become more pervasive and more acute. What disturbs her most is that the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. A decade ago, she used to referee family fights in her office, she told me, where the teens would tell their parents, “This is bad for me! I’m not doing this.” Now, she reports, the teenagers have no sense of agency. They still complain bitterly about all the same things, but they feel they have no choice. Many have also fallen prey to what Levine calls a “mass delusion” that there is but one path to a successful life, and that it is very narrow. Adolescents no longer typically identify parents or peers as the greatest source of their stress, Levine says. They point to school. But that itself may suggest a submission of sorts—the unquestioned adoption of parental norms.

In March, after spending two days among Palo Alto’s parents and civic leaders, Luthar came to see the community, still in shock over the suicides, as hovering somewhere between fear and denial. The meeting she attended with select parents, scholars, mental-health professionals, and community leaders was academically rigorous and yielded many important insights. But it was “eerie” in its almost complete lack of feeling, she later said. What she sensed from the group was a lot of “grief and terror and resentment,” but all under the surface. “There are a lot of very hard truths that are just not being spoken.”

Tragedies do not always bring people together; sometimes they just deepen the rifts between them. The day after Byron Zhu died, a Paly senior named Andrew Lu posted on his blog a diagram of three circles, labeled “Palo Alto,” “Male,” and “Asian.” “It seems that the demographic most at risk are Asian (Chinese) males in high school (hey, that’s what I am!),” he wrote. Three of the boys who had died in the past academic year had at least some Asian heritage.

Andrew was broaching a very touchy subject, one that had come up more rudely in comments on Palo Alto Online. Heavy stress among “good kids” was the product of “a nasty competitive atmosphere contrived by unethical Tiger Mothers,” one commenter wrote. At the end of some of my conversations, a student, teacher, or counselor would look around to make sure no one was listening and then whisper a story about an Asian kid being punished or even kicked out of the house for a night after getting a B or failing to get into Stanford. I’d heard how new East Asian immigrant parents mistakenly transposed the reality of education in, say, China or Korea, which is that how you do on a single test can determine your entire future. Gunn is more than 40 percent Asian, and some non-Asian parents, particularly ones who’d grown up in town when the Asian population was smaller, felt the shift was poisoning the culture of the entire school.

By late March, 42 Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for suicidal thoughts.
But how much does Andrew Lu’s diagram explain? In the 2009–10 suicide cluster, most of the high-school kids who’d killed themselves were not Asian. In Suniya Luthar’s view, the resentment over Asian parents’ effect on Gunn’s culture was something to be aired and discussed. After all, she said, it was true that some Asian kids did face intense pressure from their parents, on top of a cultural stigma against seeking help for mental-health issues. But it was also true that non-Asians were too quick to deflect scrutiny away from themselves. Luthar’s research documenting problems among affluent kids was conducted in schools with largely white populations. And two weeks after Byron Zhu died, it was a member of a different student demographic—white, female—who, in an op‑ed for Palo Alto Online, wrote an unforgettable lament over what the headline called “The Sorrows of Young Palo Altans.”

“A piece of you cringes when you hear that your friend has been preparing for the SAT with classes since last summer, and that they’re already scoring a 2000,” wrote Carolyn Walworth, who was then a junior and Paly’s student representative to the school board. She continued:

(And what about … the girl taking a summer immersion program to skip ahead and get into AP French her sophomore year? And that internship your best friend has with a Stanford professor?) You can’t help but slip into the system of competitive insanity … We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick … Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?

As the year progressed and the sense of crisis deepened, school-board meetings grew more crowded and contentious. At a meeting I attended on the evening of March 24, the tension settled around the problem of zero period. Gunn had an optional period of academic classes starting at 7:20 a.m., before the regular school day began, so kids could take additional classes or finish the day earlier to do homework or train for sports. Ken Dauber, a school-board member, was one of the people trying to end it. His daughter Amanda had killed herself in June 2008, after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. (She’d gone to high school in Illinois.) Dauber, a software engineer at Google, doesn’t hide this part of his history, but he doesn’t mention it much, either. He’d run for the school board in 2014 partially because he felt that after the first suicide cluster, the district had done too little to address the root causes of student stress.

“We know from the literature that academic pressure can cause anxiety and depression, which in turn can cause suicidality,” Dauber told me. He was advocating a series of measures to reduce scholastic pressure. Concerning zero period, he later told me that the American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended in 2014 starting high school no earlier than 8:30, because studies show that a host of adolescent mental-health issues are related to insufficient sleep.

But at the meeting, the adolescents in attendance weren’t buying it. Chloe Sorensen, a Gunn sophomore, had conducted a thorough online survey of her schoolmates. She brought along a thick packet filled with the responses. In her summary, Chloe noted that 89.5 percent of all student responders did not want the option of zero period removed, and that 90.8 percent of students currently enrolled in zero period did not want it to end. “Stop telling us that our age makes our voices irrelevant,” she said. “It makes us feel more powerless and alone.”

The written testimonies in that packet are at times alarming for their Stockholm-syndrome quality. “I would just like to say that a lot of the stress” is “from all the limits you guys are trying to enforce,” reads one typical statement. “Limiting when we can take APs or limiting numbers and classes and honors and such just makes us students more flustered and stressed about the future.” Dauber coded the written responses and determined that the No. 1 reason students wanted zero period was to free up more time to do homework in the afternoon and evening. “It’s a coping mechanism,” he said. “The kids are losing sleep to cope with excessive homework. They are just finding ways to deal with issues we should be dealing with directly.”

Ken Dauber, a Google engineer and school-board member whose daughter killed herself in 2008, believes the school district has not done enough to address the root causes of academic stress. (Brian L. Frank)

Even so, students such as Chloe Sorensen might be onto something when they intuit that a factor as discrete and literal as zero period can’t possibly be the true source of their distress. After all, Byron Zhu, the last kid who’d died, went to Palo Alto High, which doesn’t offer early-morning academic classes. Too much homework doesn’t feel sufficient to explain the statistic that Denise Herrmann, Gunn’s principal, reported to the board the following week: Since the school year had begun, 42 Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for “significant suicide ideation.”

As the year unfolded, people with intimate knowledge of suicide—unwanted, indelible—began to speak up more. Kathleen Blanchard was one. So was Julia Tachibana, whose brother killed himself in 2003. They were parents, siblings, or friends of kids who’d died years earlier. Some were initially reluctant, perhaps because their voices were so discordant with Silicon Valley’s relentless optimism. But now, with the community plainly in crisis, they became much more visible. I met with Taylor Chiu, a former Paly student, in the starter apartment in San Francisco that she shares with her boyfriend. Chiu had attempted suicide in 2002, when she was a freshman in high school. She has a job and furniture collected from friends and pretty decorative rugs and nice-smelling soap in the bathroom. She’s on her way to a new life and has no reason to relive her old one, but when Tachibana, a friend of hers, asked whether she would talk with me, Chiu felt an urgency to explain what had happened to her.

When she was little, Chiu and her family lived in what she described as an idyllic house in Sonoma County, where she and her brother spent weekday afternoons in the wilderness out back. Then, in 1998, during the tech boom, her dad got a job in Silicon Valley. Her parents chose Palo Alto because it didn’t feel like endless suburbia, and because of the schools. Once, Chiu reported to her mom that some of her schoolmates got paid $20 for every A they earned, and her mom said, “Why would we pay you? It’s just what we expect of you.”

“I could never classify my mom as overly pushy or strict,” Chiu told me, but she had some rules that were so obvious, they didn’t have to be articulated: You did your homework before playing; you always turned in your assignments. Her mom worked part time, but she picked up the kids after school every day. She always knew what tests were coming up, or whether their grades had slipped. The family ate dinner together most nights.

The kids had internalized their parents’ priorities and didn’t know how to break free.
In 2001, during her freshman year, Chiu decided to try out for water polo, because she’d been a “water baby” and was still a pretty good swimmer and anyway couldn’t compete with the soccer kids who’d been playing since they were 6. She was also a Girl Scout and played trombone in the school jazz band, and then she got chosen for a role in a historical play, working closely with a teacher she loved. When the water-polo season ended, she joined the swim team. Most school days, she would swim from 6 to 7 a.m. After school she’d go to swim practice, then to play rehearsal until 7 p.m., then home to study. Wedged in somehow were two band practices a week, plus her Girl Scout meeting. Her parents were proud, but she began to focus on how it was dark every morning when she left her house, and dark when she came home at night. The words she used at the time to talk about how she was feeling were so mundane that you could be forgiven for glossing right over them—stressed, tired—but when she went on runs on the weekends, she’d often start to sob. “I was exhausted to the bone,” she said. “I remember just not being happy about anything, and I just couldn’t make it slow down. And I thought there would never be any escape.”

Her first semester, Chiu got an F on a geometry test, which “totally traumatized me.” Her relationship with her parents started to fray, “because it just took too much energy to speak in a polite tone of voice.” She began to dread swim practice and even Girl Scouts and band, “but I didn’t want to be a quitter.” She remembers wishing that someone had broken up with her, or that she was anorexic, or that she had some reason to explain to her parents why she felt so sad. “I also felt like I was already saying that I was too stressed, and nobody—neither my parents nor my teachers—seemed to care or take me seriously.” She didn’t want to ask for a break, she said, because people would think she was lazy. “But having a mental disorder? That’s serious. People would listen to that.” It would be, she thought, like a man being held back from a fight: He would never have to admit he couldn’t win.

One night in February, after swim practice, Chiu was taking a bath and listening to a moody Alicia Keys song on a CD her mom had bought her. She’d taken a bottle of Advil from a cabinet downstairs. “The only reason I waffled,” she told me, “was because I knew it would probably break my mom’s heart, and I didn’t know if I could do that to her.” But she did it: She swallowed all the pills. Not long after, she put on her sweats and went down to dinner—“We have dinner every night. You can’t get out of that.” At the table, her younger brother noticed she was acting strange, and then she confessed that she’d swallowed some pills.

“How much?” her dad asked.
“I don’t know.”
Her parents went searching for the bottle, and once they saw that it was empty, they drove her straight to the hospital.
She feels lucky, she told me, that she hadn’t heard of any high schoolers jumping in front of a train. “I’d read about overdoses, but the train just never occurred to me. I wonder if, in that state of desperation, on one of my really bad days, it would have seemed like a good idea to me.”

Many well-educated parents are quick to distance themselves from the Tiger Mom. We might admire her children’s accomplishments, but we tend to believe these can be coaxed out of a child through applause, not scolding. In fact, this particular combination of lavish praise and insistence on achievement defines our era of protective, meritocratic parenting. But it turns out that this combination can be just as hard on a child’s well-being. Avi Assor, a psychology professor at Ben-Gurion University, in Israel, has studied how parenting affects children’s ability to cope with school pressure. Providing praise and love when a child performs especially well can look like healthy parenting, he says, because the parents are giving the child more of a good thing. But if praise comes only when a child succeeds, the child is likely to develop a sense that his or her parents’ affection depends upon good grades, or touchdowns, or mastery of a religious text, or whatever the parents’ priorities might be.

The Israeli high-school students Assor and his colleagues studied who perceived their parents as showing warmth only when they were acing school were described by their teachers as showing little intellectual interest in subjects that wouldn’t be tested. They felt “deeply hurt” when they got a bad grade.

Taylor Chiu, who attempted suicide as a freshman in 2002, says that only after the attempt did she begin to really find her own priorities. (Brian L. Frank)

They had internalized their parents’ priorities, and though they felt conflicted about them, they didn’t quite know how to break free. So in Assor’s studies, kids identified with statements such as “Sometimes I feel that my need to study hard controls me and leads me to give up things I really want to do” and “I often feel a strong internal pressure to exert control over my negative emotions, even in situations where such control is not necessary.”

The aim of healthy parenting, Assor says, should not be to shower children only with praise and trophies, or to encourage self-esteem based on no real achievements. It should be to disentangle love from the project of parental or pedagogical guidance. Giving specific, positive feedback about something a child has tried hard at, or critical yet constructive feedback when a child fails, is perfectly appropriate. “But being warm and nice is a different matter,” he says. “We want to be nice and warm also when our kids do not achieve and when they do not try hard to achieve.” The hope is that, secure in love, a child can experiment more freely and begin to find his or her own voice.

Chiu told me that after she got out of the hospital, she felt more empowered to tell her parents “No, I can’t do this” or “No, I won’t do that.” Her parents had been “more effective than I realized,” she says, at instilling certain values, such as never quitting, and now she had to figure out where her own limits were. She did quit the swim team, and dropped down a lane in chemistry. She asked her teachers whether she could skip the work she’d missed while she was gone, and they all assured her that it wasn’t important. The word quitter flitted into her mind and then flitted out again. It was liberating to give something up and have nothing catastrophic happen.

With the help of therapists and time, Chiu could better explain what she had experienced—depression, the dangers of not sleeping enough. She learned that her idea that she could escape by manufacturing a mental-health crisis was itself a sign of a mental-health crisis. Not atypically for people who come to consider suicide, she’d lost her ability to think clearly or solve problems, and ended up trapped in a tunnel ruminating about escape, until self-destruction became the only light she could see.

Chiu still wound up getting good grades and going to Harvard, as her father had done. The difference was that she no longer felt driven by something she didn’t understand. “The expectation was off,” she said, “so I could just blow everyone’s mind.” In college she studied sociology, and what stayed with her was an image of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. It depicts a prison overseen by an omnipresent guard, but she recalled the prison as being constructed in a way that ensured the inmates could keep tabs on one another, “and you don’t even need walls or fences or physical restraints. You just restrain them by creating a social norm.” After we talked, she e-mailed me a Steve Jobs quote that was inspiring her lately: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people … and you can change it.”

When you look at suicide statistics, you inevitably begin to see patterns. Unlike murders, which are more common on weekends, suicides spike on Mondays and after holidays; researchers guess this has to do with the disappointment that follows thwarted expectations. Adolescent suicide has dropped dramatically since the 1990s, although in the past few years it’s started to creep back up. (Researchers surmise that the drop is largely attributable to the proliferation of antidepressant prescriptions and to more-effective suicide-prevention efforts.) Almost by definition, suicide points to underlying psychological vulnerability. The thinking behind it is often obsessive and then impulsive; a kid can be ruminating about the train for a long time and then one night something ordinary—a botched quiz, a breakup—leads him or her to the tracks.

And of course, one thing that puts a kid at risk is someone else’s suicide. At Gunn, the scariest thing kids told me is that now, in one student’s phrasing, “suicide is one of the options.”
Because this is Palo Alto, the community has marshaled legions of experts on sleep, stress, social contagion, and any other potentially relevant subject they’ve been able to identify. But they can never be sure that the research will cover the darkest terrain of any individual kid’s mind. Recently I listened to David Lester, a psychology professor at Stockton University, in New Jersey, and an authority on suicide, being interviewed on a podcast. “I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves,” he said. “And myself and my friends, we often, when we’re relaxing, admit that we really don’t have a good idea of why people kill themselves.”
While reporting this story, I came to understand quite a lot about academic stress and adolescent misery, and about my own parenting, and about how urgent it is for parents and educators to question their own good intentions. But the link between teenage alienation and the decision to die never much clarified. In fact, the closer I got to the heart of this story, the less I felt I understood that link. Some details neatly fit the narrative that academic pressure has caused lethal amounts of stress in Palo Alto—Taylor Chiu’s experience, for example. Will Dickens, who died in 2009, had a learning disability, and his mother, Janet Dixon-Dickens, told me he never forgot it at Gunn. Cameron Lee, on the other hand, wasn’t obviously oppressed by schoolwork, and neither was J.P. Blanchard, or Sonya Raymakers, a girl who died in June 2009, soon after being accepted into her dream program at New York University.
After J.P.’s suicide, Kathleen Blanchard “went on a mission,” she told me, chasing down teachers and school administrators in an attempt to gather every piece of information about his behavior in the weeks before he died. She was looking for an explanation, a reason, but eventually she realized that she might never get a fully satisfying one. “I’m resolved to live with incomplete answers,” she said.

As Kathleen and I talked in her living room, I heard a train send out its alarm, and she caught my startled look. “My son died right there,” she said, pointing out the window. The tracks were a block from the house. He’d grown up to the sound of the train, while brushing his teeth, doing his homework, falling asleep—every 20 minutes or so. That morning, she’d dropped him off at school and he’d walked right to the tracks. When we met, Kathleen was wearing a sunshine-yellow shirt and red lipstick, and it was clear that she was making a great effort to remain composed. She still calls him “my boy,” as if he’s in the next room with his sisters doing his homework. “I should have been more curious,” she said. “I should have stopped doing the laundry and looked at him and listened.”

After Harry Lee died, Kathleen attended a school meeting full of fretful parents. Two of them, she recalled, had angrily demanded, “Where’s the data?,” meaning demographic information about the kids who’d died. Kathleen stood up and said, “First of all, you are talking about my son. And second, they are not robots. You can’t break them open and find the broken circuit. It’s so complicated. There is so much you don’t know, and you are never going to know … We are not going to have ‘the answer.’ We will just do our best.”

Her metaphor reminded me of an exhibit I’d seen recently on Maillardet’s automaton. Around 1800, the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet built a sort of robot that captivated audiences with its ability to re-create four drawings and three poems, in French and English. Initially, the mechanical boy was displayed in the formal costume of a European courtier. Now the boy is displayed at the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, without clothes, because, as a sign explains, “today we marvel at the design of the automaton itself—rather than being fooled by its lifelike motion.” In these days of assumed meritocracy, where children can be turned into anything, we admire them as displays of remarkable engineering, to be tweaked and fine-tuned into bilingual perfection. What we’ve lost, perhaps, is a sense that there may be things about them we can’t know or understand, and that that mysterious quality, separate from us, is what we should marvel at.

Admitting we don’t entirely know why teenagers kill themselves isn’t an invitation to do nothing to prevent it from happening. It’s just a call for humility, a short pause to acknowledge that a sense of absolute certainty about what children should do or be or how they should operate is part of what landed us here.
Among palo alto’s middle-school kids, Gunn is known as “the suicide school.” The reputation has brought the students closer, given them something to rally against. Earlier this year they created a Tumblr featuring pictures of kids holding a mini whiteboard that reads A Titan is … resilient, referring to the school mascot, or a titan is … adventurous or a titan is  … fab! or whatever they want to write. Over the summer, a few kids made a documentary about the suicides, called Unmasked. “You don’t need to get the best grades or do the best anything,” one says in the trailer. “Just do what makes you smile.”
Ken Dauber won the debate over early-morning classes at Gunn. They’ve been abolished, and the school has adopted other academic reforms as well. Caltrain is working with the city of Palo Alto to install cameras and increase the height of fences along the tracks.

After my interview with Kim Diorio, the Palo Alto High principal, she suggested I walk around the quad to see what the kids were doing during lunch. Diorio says she often asks kids what they do for fun, “and they can’t answer that question.” On the day I visited, they had an easy answer. It was Field Day, and the school had set up giant bouncy castles and slides in bright rainbow colors all over the quad. The sun was out, and the kids were walking around barefoot, speeding down the slides in groups of twos or threes like they tell you not to do when you’re in kindergarten. The speakers were powerful enough that for a good hour, the music drowned out the sound of the Caltrain coming through town. In front of the biggest slide, a group of kids formed a line, grabbing one another by the waist. “Train!” one of them yelled, and they all tried to climb the wrong way up the slide until they crashed back down together. They’re kids, so they can still forget.