World / Reporter's Journal

Rise in teen suicides unfortunately not isolated incidents

By Chang Jun (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-10-07 06:34

A recent family tragedy, in which a suicidal son using poisonous gas also inadvertently killed his father on Sept 24, has saddened the Asian-American community of Silicon Valley. It has also brought attention to the persistent social problem of teenage suicides among Asian-American families, a sorrowful issue that woefully has been on the rise in recent years.

According to the Santa Clara County medical examiner's office, the two victims — identified as Lian Liu, 53, and his son William, 17 — were found dead after a report of a strong gas odor at an apartment complex on 2025 California St in Mountain View. Rise in teen suicides unfortunately not isolated incidents

Police spokeswoman Shino Tanaka said investigators found on site the chemical compounds calcium sulfide and sulfuric acid, which when combined produce the toxic byproducts of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.

In low concentrations, hydrogen sulfide causes nausea, eye irritation and headaches; in high concentrations it can lead to unconsciousness, serious eye damage and death, according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Authorities concluded that one of the victims died by suicide and the other by accident.

Their deaths have left the community searching for answers: What led to this tragedy for a dad who was a much-respected manager at the Milk Pail Market in Mountain View and a son, a high-achieving student who aced the SATs with a score of 2400 and had just been admitted to the University of California, San Diego?

According to close family friends, son William "was extremely disappointed" at not being accepted to the Ivy League colleges he had applied to. The 17-year-old had pinned his last hopes on the University of California, Los Angeles, which ranks higher in the UC system than the San Diego campus. Unfortunately, the rejection letter from UCLA seems to have been the last straw.

Listed as the third-highest cause of death among the 15-24 age group in the US, suicide attempts are higher among Asian Pacific American (APA) students than their peers of other ethnic backgrounds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2010 that APAs are more likely to commit suicide than average Americans.

Why? One major factor is the pressure of being a "model minority", a term first coined in the mid 1960s by William Person, a sociologist at UCLA. His research on Japanese Americans at the time found they strived to do everything well despite the discrimination and disadvantages they had experienced during World War II.

This "model minority" concept was eventually expanded and applied to Chinese Americans and other Asian groups. The notion basically leads to a stereotype of Asian Americans as a whole and sets higher expectations of the group — Asian Americans do better in school and at work, have fewer social problems than their peers of other ethnic backgrounds and they inherit their high cultural standards from earlier generations.

According to Eliza Noh, associate professor at the Asian American Studies program at the California State University, Fullerton, the socially constructed stereotype of the "model minority" has become internalized in many APA households, causing higher family and individual expectations and therefore affecting APA teenagers in many ways.

First and foremost, families and students have put too much emphasis on academic achievement while ignoring the mental health problems of the young. The score-oriented value system is the cause of many suicides among teenagers.

For example, five suicides in six months in 2011 at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, shocked the community and the school, forcing them to ask themselves: "How should we change our culture?"

In China, the specter of teen suicide is no better. According to the Annual Report on China's Education released in May, most teenagers who killed themselves were in middle schools and took their own lives mainly because they could not handle the pressure of the test-oriented education system.

About 92.7 per cent of the suicide teens did so after arguing with teachers or having been under heavy academic pressure, said Cheng Pingyuan, a professor at Nanjing Normal University, who led the nationwide study.

What are the kinds of people we need for tomorrow, for the greater good of the entire society? What should the real meaning of education be? These questions are not only for parents, but for teachers and teenagers as well.

In the pursuit of academic excellence, we should also emphasize the importance of nurturing wholesome individuals who can be the leaders of tomorrow, instead of producing unbalanced academic robots who can become psychologically troubled.


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