Three months before his May 2009 suicide on the Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto, 17-year-old Jean-Paul “JP” Blanchard wrote on Facebook about trying to help a woman in a wheelchair navigate through a Starbucks.
The story offered no explicit clues that the Gunn High School junior was depressed or suicidal. But it did offer insights. And to his mother, Kathleen, it confirmed everyone’s impression that JP was intelligent, sensitive and empathetic — maybe especially so.
“The thing that made him special was that he noticed and cared for others,” she says.
But the post also revealed how much JP could agonize over everyday situations. He wondered if he should have done more for the woman, but he was also angry that he was the only customer to give up a “precious spot” in line to open the door for her.
“Why was I, the youngest person in the place, the one to go help?” he asked. His anger quickly toggled into the wish that sharing the story would inspire others to commit “acts of kindness.”
In the nearly five years since her son’s death, Kathleen Blanchard has tried to understand why. She talked to his friends, read through things he’d written, but questions remain. Still, in the process, she gained insights she hopes might help other young people who are struggling with depression and other serious mental health disorders. A recent suicide in Palo Alto prompted Blanchard, along with JP’s girlfriend, Lydia Huang, to talk to this newspaper and share a message with teens who might be contemplating suicide: Don’t despair — you can get through this.
The need to help kids has taken on renewed urgency in Palo Alto. It may be home to one of America’s most prestigious universities and achievers who define a 21st-century idea of success. But the city also has become the focus of a national discussion about suicide, mental illness and academic pressure on teens.
In the year after JP’s death, four more Palo Alto teens died at the same railroad crossing. Another cluster of youth suicides began in October. The most recent was the death of a 15-year-old Palo Alto High School sophomore. In all, 12 Palo Alto teens are known to have died by suicide since 2008.
Palo Alto isn’t the only Bay Area city grappling with this issue. Nationwide, suicide is the third leading cause of death of young people ages 15 to 24. This past fall in the East Bay, the Contra Costa Crisis Center gave a presentation on suicide prevention in East Contra Costa in response to a spate of suicides, including ones involving 11- and 15-year-olds.
Most people who die this way are suffering from a diagnosable mental health or substance abuse disorder, says Lesley Garcia, the call center’s team leader. Significant to note, Garcia adds, is that an estimated 80 percent have given some warning of their intentions.
Teens can be especially vulnerable, she says, in part because they can be impulsive. When a teen already harbors suicidal thoughts, a romantic rejection or a bad grade can overwhelm her with the feeling that this event defines her and the pain will never end.
“Adults might know this feeling won’t last forever, that it will be over if I get another job or make some other change,” Garcia says. “For youth, it’s hard to see past the pain they are feeling.”
Also, teens may work hard to hide their pain, she says, and feel pressure to succeed, fit in and gain peer acceptance.
“On social media, everyone is going to parties, having great spring break trips, and teenagers want to be like everyone else,” Garcia says. “They don’t want to show what’s really going on inside.”
Blanchard regards her son’s life as a “mystery novel.” As she sits in her bright, sunny family room, with photos of JP and his younger sisters displayed on the walls, she says, “My son’s life was a book, 17 chapters as it were. Certainly, the last chapter was very sad … but as I go back and sort of review that mystery book, things pop out as clues that maybe I didn’t see as clues before.”
Recent public forums in Palo Alto have focused on ways to alleviate teen stress by enforcing the schools’ homework policy, possibly changing school start times to reduce sleep deprivation and addressing the culture of competition.
With JP, academic stress wasn’t an issue. Blanchard says he had little trouble keeping up with classes, and he seemed to be thriving. “He was smart, he was talented, he played on a sports team, he had a loving family. We ate dinner together every night.”
Blanchard regrets not knowing that her son likely was dealing with an undiagnosed, untreated depression.
But she has since learned that parents are sometimes the last to know. The results of a 1980 study of San Mateo County high school students hold true today, prevention experts say. When asked whom they would turn to if they were contemplating suicide, students overwhelmingly said “a friend” — before parents, counselors, teachers or other adults.
Indeed, JP’s friends became privy to his comments about him being sad, lonely, out of sorts.
Huang, now a senior at Penn State studying psychology, began dating JP at Christmastime in 2008. She was a sophomore, and JP was her first love. On New Year’s Eve, he texted her to thank her for saving his life.
Over that winter, her boyfriend, who “was a great listener,” talked about feeling lonely, even though he was always surrounded by groups of friends. Then at some point, he startled her by saying he wanted to hurt himself. She told a couple of friends. “We had never dealt with something like that. None of us knew what to do.”
JP dismissed her suggestion to see a counselor: “He didn’t believe it would help, and I didn’t push it further.” At 16, and with no experience with suicide, Huang didn’t think that JP’s comments could reflect a genuine intent to take his own life.
SURVIVING, THEN THRIVING
Lauren Davis understands what it felt like from the other side. She was consumed with thoughts of suicide during her teens. At 16, Davis said she gave out signals that she was suicidal, though she was too ashamed to make her intentions explicit.
A self-described high achiever and two-sport athlete, Davis, now 28, says she cried in the dugout at softball games and told a calculus teacher that all she could think about was dying after getting a B-plus on a test. She knew her father suspected something was wrong, but neither he nor anyone else knew to ask if she was depressed or thinking about killing herself.
“It’s not something you can tiptoe around,” she says, repeating a basic tenet of suicide prevention. Asking a teen directly but compassionately if she’s depressed or suicidal shows you care and encourages a conversation. In addition, using the word “suicide” won’t put the idea into her head.
After being involved in a single-car accident, Davis told a friend it was a suicide attempt, even though it wasn’t. But the friend told her mother, which got Davis into treatment. She took anti-depressants through high school but was able to taper off in college. She became a Fulbright scholar and worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but now has her dream job at Forefront, a suicide prevention program at the University of Washington. She occasionally feels depressed but not suicidal.
“I really can’t relate to that feeling anymore,” says Davis, whose job involves trying to help students who are experiencing what she went through.
“If we can get these kids through these dark moments and dark months and get them connected to care,” she adds, “they can go on to live happy, healthy and flourishing lives.”
Huang isn’t sure she has forgiven herself for not sharing her concerns about JP with a trusted adult. But her experience informs her plan to return to Palo Alto and start a program focused on supporting mental health and suicide prevention among Asian-Americans.
Huang admitted that she was afraid Blanchard would be angry with her after JP’s death, but Blanchard understood the difficult position Huang and JP’s other friends were in. She and Huang have supported each other in their grief.
“The most important part of my healing was support from JP’s mom,” Huang says.
In befriending Huang or in sharing JP’s story, Blanchard is trying to live up to the model of kindness and empathy he set. She wants other families to have the chance to help their children, in a way her family didn’t.
“We can’t do anything about (what happened to JP),” she says. “We have to do better going forward.”
From Mercury News by Martha Ross.