This past spring, Harvard-Westlake, a prestigious prep school in Los Angeles, was thrust into crisis mode. Between March and June, three students died by suicide, setting off alarm bells within the school’s community.
The first death happened on March 2, when a 15-year-old sophomore girl took her own life. A member of Harvard-Westlake’s field-hockey team and an avid photographer, the student was honored at a school memorial later that month. The Chronicle, Harvard-Westlake’s student newspaper, dedicated the front page of its March issue to her, and a eulogy given by the student’s photography teacher was published in full.
About a month later, on April 19, an 18-year-old senior boy died by suicide. The school paper dedicated the front page of its May issue to his memory, including a collage of photos displaying the student’s volunteer work with the Beverly Hills Police Department. An article in the issue noted that Harvard-Westlake had stopped grading homework and made exams optional during the year’s fourth quarter in response to the two suicides.
Then, on June 30, after school let out for the summer, a 16-year-old boy who played on the varsity volleyball team and volunteered with a teen mental-health hotline operated by Cedars Sinai Medical Center died by suicide weeks after completing his sophomore year. The Chronicle’s first issue of the 2023–24 academic year was dedicated to him.
“We are experiencing enormous and tragic pain,” Harvard-Westlake president Rick Commons told the paper.
Despite its team of mental-health counselors and peer-support groups, as well as the ample financial resources the school can tap, the three student deaths made it clear to Harvard-Westlake teachers and administrators that the school needed to immediately re-evaluate its approach to student mental health. At stake were students’ lives and the school’s reputation among current and prospective Harvard-Westlake families.
Though such efforts to improve student mental health are allegedly underway, they haven’t quelled growing concerns from students and parents who are questioning what it means for a school to offer a rigorous and healthy academic environment, especially when a growing percentage of children and teens are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and with suicide rates rising across the country.
“This is the symptom of a much bigger issue and a much bigger story,” says one Harvard-Westlake alum, who spoke to AIR MAIL on condition of anonymity.
Featuring two campuses in Los Angeles’s Studio City and Holmby Hills neighborhoods, Harvard-Westlake, which goes from 7th to 12th grade, costs $46,900 a year to attend. According to its most recent tax filings, the school has $502.4 million in net assets and $180.7 million in its endowment. Children of the Hollywood elite—parents have included Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Tom Hanks, and Denzel Washington—frequently attend the school. Many former students have gone on to become Hollywood stars, such as Lily Collins, Beanie Feldstein, and Ben Platt.
A vanity school this is not. Harvard-Westlake is known for its rigorous academic and athletics programs, which have resulted in a noticeable contingent of its students going to top colleges. In the past five years, out of 1,413 graduates, 89 have gone to New York University, 68 to the University of Chicago, 46 to Harvard, 42 to the University of Pennsylvania, 31 to Yale, 28 to Stanford and Columbia each, 27 to Brown, and 19 to Princeton.
As a result, competition to get into the school is fierce. For the 2023–24 school year, the school admitted just 24 percent of its seventh-grade applicants. Eager parents enroll their children in “feeder” elementary schools, including John Thomas Dye in Bel Air, Curtis School on Mulholland, and Carlthorp in Santa Monica, to boost their six-year-olds’ chances of admittance into Harvard-Westlake and, eventually, an Ivy League college.
A “culture of success” permeates the school, according to another alum who spoke with AIR MAIL on condition of anonymity. “The classic [saying] is college is easier than Harvard-Westlake,” the alum explains. “I always knew how well my friends were doing in classes, or how well people were doing in tests. People would talk about that.”
The second alum says that pressure often came from all sides—parents, teachers, peers, themselves—amid the demands of challenging A.P. classes, time-consuming after-school extracurriculars, and exhausting hours of homework. “It’s just a fucking lot. At other, normal schools, you’ll have kids who have that full course load or are doing all of that, but they’re a really small minority,” the alum says. “But at Harvard-Westlake, that’s the norm. And you still have to be a social kid at the same time.”
“The classic [saying] is college is easier than Harvard-Westlake.”
In recent years, Harvard-Westlake has taken steps to combat its reputation as a high-stress school by hiring more counselors. At the beginning of August, a little over a month after the rising junior died by suicide, Harvard-Westlake’s top administrators sent out an eight-page document outlining the school’s past and future steps to improve students’ mental health. Called the Mental Health & Wellness Plan, the document includes an introduction from Commons and head of school Laura Ross, both of whom called on the entire school community to “take ownership of the goal of creating a culture of wellness at Harvard-Westlake.” Commons is the former headmaster of Groton, in Massachusetts, another school that attracts high achievers.
“In the spring and summer of 2023, we experienced excruciating tragedies in our own school community, moving us not only to profound grief, but also to more urgent commitment and more focused action,” Commons and Ross wrote. “Our full attention and collective energy are now directed toward creating a comprehensive Mental Health and Wellness program.” Immediate steps included partnering with Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services to provide suicide-prevention training for parents and offering “Gatekeeper” training for students and faculty, which trains individuals how to identify those at risk of self-harm and help them get the assistance they need.
For the current academic year, which began on August 23, Harvard-Westlake plans on assigning one counselor from a team of seven to each student at the upper school, which goes from sophomore through senior year. A sports psychologist will work with each athletic team. In early 2023, prior to the first student suicide, the school announced plans to build a Wellness Center, providing students and counselors a central place to meet. There are also plans to re-examine Harvard-Westlake’s “policies and practices for grading, test retakes, and paper revisions,” though changes have yet to be revealed.
“It’s just a fucking lot. At other, normal schools, you’ll have kids who have that full course load … but they’re a really small minority.... At Harvard-Westlake, that’s the norm.”
In a statement, Ari Engelberg, a spokesperson for Harvard-Westlake, told AIR MAIL that the school was “not immune to the growing mental health challenges faced by an increasing number of teens nationwide.” He explained that “the loss of any student is devastating for our entire community. Losing three students this past school year is unimaginable.”
“While we don’t have reason to believe that these tragedies are linked to anything that happened at school,” said Engelberg, “Harvard-Westlake is embarking on an even more expansive effort to address the current crisis in teen mental health.”
And yet, news about the suicides has been kept quiet, apart from reporting in the Harvard-Westlake student newspaper and a brief piece in Los Angeles magazine published on August 21. This has led some students to seek out additional information on their own.
“There’s a lot of mystery around it, which I don’t think is good or healthy,” one alum says. “I know that you can find the autopsy reports online and that students found them.”
It’s impossible to point to one reason or cause as to why a student may contemplate suicide, according to Joel Schwartz, a clinical psychologist at Total Spectrum Counseling who specializes in youth and teen neurodivergence. “The high-stress, rigid academic type of environments are notorious for creating a lot of pain in children. However, I think [it’s not right] to put the blame on a single institution, when really the entire educational model needs to be rethought,” Schwartz says. He points to the mentality that doing well in high school and, later, going to a prestigious college are part of the requisite pipeline to getting a good job and achieving financial success.
“There’s a lot of mystery around it, which I don’t think is good or healthy.”
The problem isn’t confined to Harvard-Westlake. According to a 10-year survey of youth health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in 2021, 42 percent of high-school students “felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities.” The survey also found that the rates of high-schoolers “seriously considering,” planning, and/or attempting suicide have risen across the board since 2011, with percentages skewing higher for students who identify as female and L.G.B.T.Q.+.
In the tight-knit environment of a high school, there’s also the risk that a student suicide could have a “contagion” effect on other vulnerable students, potentially triggering a copycat suicide. This happened at Gunn High School, a rigorous public high school in Palo Alto. In the 2009–10 school year and the 2014–15 school year, it experienced suicide clusters, which the C.D.C. defines as three or more suicides happening in close proximity to one another. A grieving community may struggle to honor a deceased student’s memory without having conversations focus on why or how a student died.
At Harvard-Westlake, the grief of the three student deaths lingers as high-schoolers ease into the new school year. Later this fall, the high school will put on a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing instead of the previously scheduled Everybody, a play written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that has recurring themes of death. Upper-school students will meet with their counselors and have conversations with faculty, staff, and their peers about mental health as they proceed with doing homework, applying to college, and dealing with the day-to-day dramas of being a teenager.
It’s too early to gauge the effects of Harvard-Westlake’s Mental Health & Wellness Plan, but administrators have said they hope to create a culture where students don’t think twice before “[stopping] everything that you’re doing to take care of your friend and get that friend to an adult that you trust,” as Commons told The Chronicle in August.
“The people I know at the school are very good people,” said one of the alums. “I have my own feelings about the school and the community, but I feel very strongly that this is not an uncaring place.”
J. Clara Chan is a Los Angeles–based journalist. Her work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, The Atlantic, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications