CDC investigates suicide epidemic

PAUSD to partner with institute to conduct Epi-Aid investigation

Superintendent Max McGee recently invited the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to partner with Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) to investigate recent teen suicides in Palo Alto.

PAUSD prompted the CDC to conduct an epidemiologic study for the district in response to several student suicides that occurred during the 2014-15 school year. The investigation, known as Epidemiologic Assistance (Epi-Aid), is designed to ascertain and understand the causes of the recent suicides and to further analyze what measures can be taken to prevent future suicides.

“We see [the recent suicides] as a public health threat,” McGee said. “One death by suicide can frequently beget another, and obviously we’re focused on the teen deaths by suicides.”

Looking to combat the growing issue of PAUSD students taking their own lives, McGee and the district turned to the CDC, a well-established national health agency, for help in early 2015.

“It’s been quite an extensive process getting the CDC involved [in the investigation], but what prompted the investigation was the cluster of students who died by suicide last year,” McGee said.

With expertise in a variety of Epi-Aids, from Ebola virus prevention to post-hurricane recovery, the CDC was seen as a valuable asset. However, the process of convincing the organization to partner on a district investigation was far from easy.

“The school district can’t call the CDC and say ‘come in,’” McGee said. “The request has to come from the public health department and the state of California. We first had to work with our Santa Clara County Department of Public Health.”

After the welcome compliance of the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health (SCCDPH), plans for the investigation were laid out wherein PAUSD, SCCDPH and the CDC (along with other organizations) would research and report on suicide prevention strategies in Palo Alto.

“We’re also working with a team from Stanford led by Dr. Steven Goodman, who will be supplementing and supporting CDC’s work,” McGee said. “This is a really concerted effort involving a lot of people on a large scale.”

The investigation team will analyze factors that cause students to attempt to take their own lives, using resources and statistics. Regarding the importance of a comprehensive investigation, McGee sees the student suicides as a pressing issue for all of Palo Alto.

“This investigation is not just about the schools; it’s about the whole community, the city, the culture, the university, the train tracks,” he said.

Regarding the scheduling and time frame of the investigation, McGee and the district are eager to get started as soon as possible in order to quickly find solutions.

“We’ll be starting the investigation in January, but we’re trying to get somebody out here [from the CDC] sooner if we can,” McGee said. “It will take just a few weeks to do the field work, but after the field work they produce an executive summary, which should be completed in a few months.”

The CDC notably conducted a comparable Epi-Aid on teen suicide clusters in Fairfax, Va. in 2014. Data from the 224-page study primarily targeted the 10-19 year-old public school demographic in five different regions of Fairfax County (encompassing 26 different schools) after a sharp rise in suicide numbers in 2013. The comprehensive report looked at factors such as drug abuse, domestic issues and mental health history in cases of suicide and attempted suicide, as well as how local communities and press should most optimally handle the publicizing of self-inflicted deaths.

“We looked at the Fairfax report and we looked at [a similar report] done in Maine,” McGee said. “We also talked to the superintendent of Needham, Mass. where there were similar occurrences. They found the CDC investigation very valuable.”

As Palo Alto continues to battle teen suicide issues, the CDC report will hopefully provide welcome solutions, as it did in Fairfax.

“The investigation will be of significant benefit for our current and future students and families,” McGee said.

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