High Schoolers Attempt Suicide Because of Stress: One Suburb Reacts
April 6, 2017 12:45 PM   Subscribe

"Small rocks from the beaches of eastern Massachusetts began appearing at Lexington High School last fall. They were painted in pastels and inscribed with pithy advice: Be happy.… Mistakes are O.K.… Don’t worry, it will be over soon. They had appeared almost by magic, boosting spirits and spreading calm at a public high school known for its sleep-deprived student body. Crying jags over test scores are common here. Students say getting B’s can be deeply dispiriting, dashing college dreams and profoundly disappointing parents."

Kids in this wealthy Boston-area suburb are worried about themselves and each other. The rocks serve as a "visual reminder of a larger, community-wide initiative: to tackle the joy-killing, suicide-inducing performance anxiety so prevalent in turbocharged suburbs like Lexington. In recent years, the problem has spiked to tragic proportions in Colorado Springs, Palo Alto, Calif., and nearby Newton, Mass., where stress has been blamed for the loss of multiple young lives."

Lexington High School is ranked #291 nationally and #9 in Massachusetts.

When they’re at school, the kids are decidedly not all right. High school students report higher levels of stress than in previous generations.

A comprehensive study of over 22,000 students conducted in collaboration with the Born This Way Foundation, the charitable organization founded by the singer Lady Gaga, suggests that when asked how they feel during the school day, USA high school students consistently invoke three key feelings: “tired,” “stressed” and “bored.”

The researcher who led the study warns that such negative feelings can influence young people's attention, memory, decision making, school performance and social lives.

"It's hard to concentrate and it's hard to do well in school if your brain is constantly having to respond to stress," said Marc Brackett, a researcher in the Yale University Department of Psychology and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

A smaller 2015 study of 128 students in two highly competitive private schools noted, "There was agreement across all types of informants (students, teachers, and the Expert Panel) that stress related to academic achievement originates not just from the schools, but also from families and the high expectations they hold for their children."

As Lexington High School fights to combat increased anxiety, stress, and suicidal students, a more difficult conversation comes from the effect of cultural differences. "Cynthia Tang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, has been a counselor at Lexington High for 12 years. Warm and well-liked, she organizes workshops addressing the pressure on Asian students to succeed, borrowing insights from the childhood discord she experienced with her own parents as well as research on biculturalism. Studies show that the less assimilated parents are to American culture, the more stressed the children.

Adding to the pressure, she says, are cultural differences in how parents, raised abroad, and their offspring, raised in the United States, are expected to process setbacks and strife: American educators routinely encourage students to share their feelings; not so in Asia.

“I really see a lot of this being bicultural conflict,” Ms. Tang said. “When you have one side of the family holding one set of values and the other embracing a new set of values, that inherently creates a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of tension.”

A Lexington parent quoted in the article had implored other parents to stop bragging about their children's early college acceptance, yet her own daughter applied to four Ivy League schools, took eight A.P. and 13 honors classes, and is also a violinist, choral singer, competitive swimmer, class vice president and member of the town's Youth Mental Health board.

Rocks? Yoga? How does a community react when kids say there's a problem, schools say there's a problem, teachers say there's a problem, but parents insist there's no problem?
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes (64 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fucking college admissions is a plague.

Sooner we go the the Canadian model (university isn't 'that' big a deal, get good grades, go to place you want, no one gives a shit about extracurriculars or AP classes) the better.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:00 PM on April 6, 2017 [20 favorites]


Well, sure. This isn't exactly surprising. To any casual observer, including teenagers, it's evident that the pie is getting smaller and smaller for those not lucky enough to be born into great wealth. It's no wonder that upper-middle-class people are desperately grabbing at anything that will give them a leg up, and Ivy League education is certainly one of those things.
posted by holborne at 1:01 PM on April 6, 2017 [17 favorites]


My New England town isn't as affluent as Lexington, but I definitely hear kids in this same frame of mind: stressed, unhappy.

There have been a few suicides in the past year or two, which just breaks your heart to see kids that bound up in their own sadness.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:01 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


In Palo Alto they hired guards for nearby level train crossings to stop kids from committing suicide. Sadly there were problems with that.

At any rate I think there needs to be more education of parents that "rigorous" is not the same as stressful or working kids to death.

Her daughter, Emily, would agree. During junior year, she dreaded car rides and family dinners — any time, really, that she was alone with her parents — because conversations routinely veered back to college.

Ugh. I suppose I'm as guilty of it as anyone else with one kid in grade 11 and another kid in first-year university, but just talk to your kids about what they like and what they want to do in a general way. Spending every free moment discussing college applications doesn't add much to the process.
posted by GuyZero at 1:01 PM on April 6, 2017


It's interesting, because I often see all of this rending of clothing and gnashing of teeth around, "how oh HOW can we make our kids perform better in school?!?"

And the thing is, we know how.

We just have to apply such insane pressure to the kids that some portion of them will commit suicide.

So there's a tradeoff. Parents just have to decide if they're willing to run the risk of their kid being dead in return for fewer B+s and more A-s.
posted by Myca at 1:02 PM on April 6, 2017 [10 favorites]


Sooner we go the the Canadian model (university isn't 'that' big a deal, get good grades, go to place you want, no one gives a shit about extracurriculars or AP classes) the better.

In the Canadian model the provinces control all the funding for both the high schools and the universities. They know exactly how many kids are coming and going and what the numbers gained and lost to out-of-province students are. And the universities are 100% force to play ball as they have no choice.

The US is never going to do this. It would amount to nationalizing the education system.
posted by GuyZero at 1:04 PM on April 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


I would suggest that there's strong currents of class anxiety in Lexington and similar towns driving this pressure: parents see how close to the edge they are, and want "better" for their kids (for certain values of "better").
posted by wenestvedt at 1:11 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's very encouraging to see a movement recognizing that the pressures even exist, but that's a long way from changing the culture.

Poor kids. :7(
posted by wenestvedt at 1:13 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


It would amount to nationalizing the education system.

Like I said, the sooner we switch to the Canadian model, the better.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:23 PM on April 6, 2017 [24 favorites]


I was just wondering last night how it was that we don't raise our children to face the possibility of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. Every parent who takes the slightest interest in childrearing understands that one of the hardest, simplest, most necessary things to teach a child is that bad things happen in life that will make you unhappy. But do they know to teach a child that someday the bad things may come from inside you? That you may, someday, be incapable of happiness through no fault of your own? I can't say, of course; I'm not a parent. I'm too depressed and anxious.

Teaching elementary students calming and breathing exercises will certainly help them in the future. Outside of making a better world, little else will. These young people are being asked to prepare for a future that no one, honestly, can picture right now, and it is no wonder that they are cracking under the strain.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:33 PM on April 6, 2017 [24 favorites]


Between this and the article about the Mississippi sorority girls from a couple days ago there's a lesson to be learned here if someone is smart enough to figure it out.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 1:38 PM on April 6, 2017


I think that a lot of the behaviors I've seen in my own kids as they've gone through school have been reactions to stress and anxiety (with social, academic and other triggers). You can be "good" at school and still find the whole experience anxiety-inducing and seek "outs" in all kinds of ways that includes some negative behaviors. Teaching them concrete skills for dealing with stress could only be good.
posted by idb at 1:59 PM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


The top Canadian universities have far more spaces than the top American universities, so competition to get in isn't nearly as fierce. Joseph Heath, The bottleneck in US higher education:
Even if America’s best universities stopped charging any tuition at all, it would hardly make a dent in social inequality. That’s because it would leave unaffected the most fundamental problem with America’s elite universities, which is that they have almost no students.
Heath suggests that perhaps the top US universities should push for a dramatic expansion in their student population.
One simple way that they could make a tangible commitment to reducing this inequality would be to press for a dramatic expansion in the student population. At University of Toronto, we effectively doubled the size of our two suburban campuses – from 7,000 to around 15,000 students each – over a period of under five years. The top U.S. schools could easily do the same.
posted by russilwvong at 2:03 PM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Princeton: 5,336
Harvard: 6,658
Yale: 5,405
Columbia: 6,068
Stanford: 7,063


Princeton Endowment: $22B
Harvard endowment: $37B
Yale endowment: $25B
Columbia endowment: $9B
Stanford endowment: $22B

These institutions aren't schools, they're massive investment funds with schools attached to them. And zero accountability to anybody. So of course they don't expand to take more students - why should they?

U of T, on the other hand, has a mere $2B CAD and is still pretty dependent on the provincial government for much of its funding.
posted by GuyZero at 2:16 PM on April 6, 2017 [25 favorites]


Heath suggests that perhaps the top US universities should push for a dramatic expansion in their student population.

Yes, if they believe they they have an exceptional ability to educate, as is their reputation, they should make some commitment to increasing enrollment, even if just gradually. But unfortunately rich, selective universities are just prestige machines for everyone associated with them.
posted by ghharr at 2:28 PM on April 6, 2017


That is not what I want for my kids.
posted by bq at 2:40 PM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


rich, selective universities are just prestige machines for everyone associated with them.
I agree with you but in some small fairness to the universities, expansion is hard. And it's really only happened under direct orders from the provincial governments, it's not like U of T's own leadership wanted to be a massive operation. They were told what to do.

But as Heath says in that article, "They have to earn sufficient revenue to cover their expenditures, but because they have no owners or investors they do not have to cover the “cost of capital.” As a result, the capital tends to just pile up over time, since no one cares whether it is being put to good use."
posted by GuyZero at 2:41 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


So part of that is that the US News and World Report is basing it's national school rankings on stuff like per capita spending (10%) and alumni giving (5%) and how many students rejected (1.25%) for the national rankings which is why they have a place like UC Berkeley (30,000 students) rated as 20th in the nation, while at the exact same time ranking it 4th in the world.

These places are "top" in part because they are rich and exclusive, not because of any educational merits.
posted by Zalzidrax at 2:53 PM on April 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


As a recent college grad, I'm honestly surprised I'm still alive. If it wasn't for the fact that I typed in "I feel miserable" into Google one day and started a very long trajectory towards figuring out how to hack my mental health, without any support on a K-12 level and dealing with intense trauma and a lack of competent mental health counselors at a very slow moving UC, I'm surprised any of us make it to the other side. I had to fight so hard for the will to live and to lean on the support of others throughout the entire process.

And I think high schools have it even tougher now than I did when I went, which makes me sick to my stomach. Mental health wasn't even really a concept I was introduced to until my sophomore year of college.
posted by yueliang at 3:04 PM on April 6, 2017 [10 favorites]


I'd be so fucked in an American school.

I've finished high school only a few years ago… in Moscow, Russia. There was absolutely no pressure to only get excellent grades, no anxiety, no one gave too many fucks. I mean, we literally played iPad games in some classes, paying little attention to the teacher :) Is that something to be proud of? Uh, I'd say it's massively better than being driven to suicide.

By the way, the few kids who did go for "straight A's" (well, 5's) at my school didn't worry about any particular class since pretty much any teacher would just raise the grade out of kindness when they're the only one to give a 4 instead of 5.
posted by floatboth at 3:07 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Possibly not, floatboth. It entirely depends on the school, what state it's located in, what the community is like. Both public and private school systems have high-pressure high-quality schools and barns for shuffling through. What you get out of an American high school is not just what you put in, but what your parents put in and what generations of other people's parents put in, all jumbled up in a hat and drawn from at random. Like our healthcare system, it is one of the worst possible institutions and somehow possesses some of the best possible people.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:18 PM on April 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


High school students report higher levels of stress than in previous generations.
I don't want to sound like I'm minimizing the scope or seriousness of the toll that performance pressures take on kids, but I don't see how they can possibly judge how much stress previous generations felt. I know bicultural families can be really hard on their kids, because I see it in my own, but there have always been parents who push too hard. A close friend of my first girlfriend killed himself after graduating Lexington HS in 1966.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:23 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Kids-rebellion is an option.
posted by jonmc at 3:39 PM on April 6, 2017


Kids-rebellion is an option.

Not for these kids -- that's the problem. Their rebellion is to get off the merry go round.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:41 PM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Heath suggests that perhaps the top US universities should push for a dramatic expansion in their student population.

Yes, if they believe they they have an exceptional ability to educate, as is their reputation, they should make some commitment to increasing enrollment, even if just gradually.


I don't think the problem is not enough people are getting their bachelor's, though. The bigger issue is that anyone looking get a "good" (i.e. middle-class wages) job feels like they have to have a four-year degree, no matter how irrelevant. They have to have a four year degree, because the number of these jobs with middle-class wages continues to shrink, so employers can keep ramping up their requirements. The number of jobs with middle-class wages continues to shrink because decades of stagnant wages (and growing living costs) means the same positions that a half-century ago provided a middle-class life on a 40-hour work week now barely keep you at the poverty line. And our wages our stagnant because at some point our country went mad and decided that the best way to increase growth and prosperity for everyone was to implement tax and spending policies whose primary benefit was to the very richest.

So, yeah, as has been discussed--I think the crush for college positions is more a symptom of growing economic inequality than stingy admissions offices.
posted by schroedinger at 3:47 PM on April 6, 2017 [9 favorites]


Sooner we go the the Canadian model (university isn't 'that' big a deal, get good grades, go to place you want, no one gives a shit about extracurriculars or AP classes) the better.

I legitimately always thought the madness about extracurriculars, essays, entrance exams (are those a thing?) and students legitimately losing their minds over college admissions was something that was sort of made up for TV. Like it's real, but it's not *that* important. I say this because I can't believe how different the Canadian and American systems are sometimes (given how otherwise culturally similar we are).

When I applied for university I filled in a one page form with my Alberta student ID, name, etc. and what I wanted to major in. Now it's online, so even easier.

I think​ the application is a lot more involved if you go to an out of province school, or if you're an international student...
posted by selenized at 3:56 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Like it's real, but it's not *that* important.

Given that have ~5,400 total students, that means about 1,300 incoming freshmen at Yale every year. They all have perfect SATs and 4.5 GPAs. That's a tiny number of students relative to the US population.

So how are you going to decide who gets in?

Also, you're Yale, so it can't be all Jews and Asians and you'd like to avoid too many black people too. Also you have a lot of varsity sports teams to fill. So you do "essays" and "interviews".

And this is fine.
posted by GuyZero at 4:00 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


I legitimately always thought the madness about extracurriculars, essays, entrance exams (are those a thing?) and students legitimately losing their minds over college admissions was something that was sort of made up for TV.
It's definitely a thing. It's just not a universal thing. Many American students have an experience that is much more like yours. A minority of American students get caught up in the college rat-race, and many of them live in places like Lexington, an affluent Boston suburb (median family income is $219,000 a year) that many people move to specifically because of the excellent schools. Also, readers of the New York Times are disproportionately people who participated in the college rat-race and whose kids will participate in it, so they want to read stories about it. They don't want to read stories about a kid who spent two years at the nearby community college, got excellent grades there, and then filled out a one-page form with no essay to transfer to a public university, although that's probably just as typical a college experience as stressing over extracurriculars and applying to Yale is.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:05 PM on April 6, 2017 [7 favorites]


I went to a high school just like this. It's always been very highly ranked, both statewide and nationally. There are always several students per graduating class that have gone all four years with perfect GPAs and perfect (or near-perfect) standardized test scores. Everyone is involved in extracurricular programs, often a few at a time. In a place where high achievement is simply the norm, the pressure to succeed is intense from all directions: teachers, peers, and especially parents all contribute to the impossibly high expectations. Most students can't actually keep up with this standard of perfection, but the pressure to strive for it (as well as the concomitant guilt when those goals aren't perfectly reached) is palpable at every turn.
How does a community react when kids say there's a problem, schools say there's a problem, teachers say there's a problem, but parents insist there's no problem?
I think a lot of the parents in these wealthy suburban communities attribute their own success to this kind of grueling work ethic, but they often downplay the advantages they were given throughout their lives that allowed their work to pay off as much as it did.
posted by Desidiosus at 4:10 PM on April 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


This just made my heart hurt for these kids. I didn't feel this way at all in high school and looked at the high achievers with pity. I remember looking at the girls (always girls!) who got perfect attendance awards each year and couldn't figure out why they thought that mattered. My parents almost never talked to me about college, which frustrated me once I realized I really wanted to go, but they also gave me an enormous gift — they consciously let me be a kid. They gave me an allowance not tied to chores and told me often that this was really my only chance in life to not have to work for money. They also let me sleep in as often as the school would allow because they recognized that getting up at six was difficult for teenagers and they would occasionally give me excused absences and one of them would take time off work themselves to show me that perfect attendance wasn't the most important thing in life. They were very clear that being an adult wouldn't be this easy (and I got good grades and got a job in high school) and I went into college with realistic expectations for what kind of workload I could take on.

I don't work in a field where the name of your college does much, so I also got lucky there. Either you're a talented graphic designer or you're not, your book of work factors almost exclusively into hiring decisions, in my experience. Maybe it's the same in other industries and these kids feel let down that getting into a school with name recognition didn't mean as much as they expected? I'm so far outside the world where the name of your college means something. My brother went to a relatively well respected liberal arts college and all he got out of it was crippling student loans and a complex because all of his friend's parents were, like, Betsy DeVos kind of wealthy. He went there against the advice of my parents, who knew they couldn't afford to help much.

I wish I could have expressed my gratitude to my hard working father, who grew up with horrific abuse in abject poverty and in foster care, for letting me be a kid while he was working his ass off, but he died soon after I graduated college. I can see how he might have taken the opposite approach to parenting, so I sympathize with the parents in the NYT article who go that route.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 4:31 PM on April 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


Yeah, this was not a thing for me or my peers. I went to a college preparatory Catholic high school but back then going to college just meant going to a college. There was not an assumption that the only colleges worth going to are limited to the same 20 or so schools. I didn't know a single person who went to an ivy, despite having attended one of the four college prep private girls schools in my city. I certainly didn't apply to any (the highest fallutin' I got was Sarah Lawrence but then my parents saw the tuition offer and went lol no).

My husband taught at my alma mater about 15 years later and it had become status school obsessed. Those same good public and smaller private colleges that me and my peers all went to are still there, but suddenly they're not good enough. I have to think this is class anxiety on the part of the upper middle class. Their class status feels much more precarious and the only way they can feel secure that their kids won't slide down any rungs is to make them into super-achieving Harvard grads.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:32 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Timely. I grew up in an affluent suburb with a great school district; my high school is routinely the #1 public high school in the US and always in the top 5 of all secondary schools in the country. When I was a student 15-odd years ago, the academic rat race was just beginning, with kids taking 3 or 4 AP courses a year. My best friend's parents only allowed her to apply to Ivy League colleges.

Since I graduated, the pressure on students sounds like it's accelerated massively, leading to complaints of burnout, stress, depression. In response, the school has started a Day of Failure (my term, not theirs) -- a half-day session where alumni are invited back to talk about failure, resilience, and growth. I don't know how helpful it is -- I participated yesterday for the first time, and half the questions I got were about which senior tech lab I did. (I didn't remember! It was so not relevant to my post-HS life!)

Having grown up a Third Culture Kid, I will say that immigrant parents, or at least South Asian immigrant parents, are focused on external measures of success (grades, college reputation, professional awards/achievements), whereas the dominant cultural narrative in America, at least at this time point, is about choosing a path that brings you personal fulfillment. That causes a lot of tension for young people trying to figure out their cultural identity. I'm glad to see that some schools are trying to address this directly.
posted by basalganglia at 4:47 PM on April 6, 2017 [6 favorites]


My wife and I took heat from multiple family members because we didn't push our kids into the "best" colleges. My daughter, especially, had the kind of "permanent record" that maaayyybbeeeee would have got her into an Ivy. She never applied. Instead she took a full ride to a Tier II State U where she is thriving with a 4.0 in her junior year, and she waves hi from Spain, which is the 2nd country of 7 she is visiting on her 3 week Easter Break tour of Europe, which is a side benefit of taking classes in England this semester. Yep, we really screwed her by not pushing her to a better school.

3 week Easter Break? Nice job England!

Meanwhile, my son graduated from the local public liberal arts school with minimal debt and a degree in history last year, then managed to do the allegedly impossible and land a job in the field of history, with just a B.A. So he has a job he seems to love, and he is not mired in hopeless debt. Again, we obviously failed as parents.

I feel for the kids who think their life is over at 18 if they get stuck matriculating at State U. I guess my kids should thank us for being such slacker parents :)
posted by COD at 4:56 PM on April 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


  an affluent Boston suburb … that many people move to specifically because of the excellent schools

That's another thing that can fuck right off with the US education system: local school funding. Poor people get shit schools to stay poor. Rich people get not merely to choose excellent funding for their own neighbourhoods, but also get to fuck with the funding of poor schools, 'cos guess who gets to be the political class?
posted by scruss at 5:30 PM on April 6, 2017 [17 favorites]


Yeah, I went to one of these pressure-cooker high schools 20 years ago and there was already a psychiatrist in town who specialized in high-achieving adolescents with suicidal ideation due to school pressure.

The thing is, I loved the rigor of my high school education. I learned SO MUCH. I loved my extracurriculars. And yet I was rarely going to bed before 1 a.m. throughout high school, to finish homework, and I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. for my before-school extracurriculars. (I was in 17 performing groups my senior year, I was awesome.) I still did not finish my homework, I always, always did my Russian homework on the bus on the way to school. I was exhausted all the time, I was weepy all the time, I was burned the hell out before I turned 15, and I kept it up for three more years. And then I went at it again for another four years, with 21 credit hours my freshman year, plus extracurriculars, plus a half-time job. I was taking graduate classes my sophomore year. My senior year I worked a 50-hour-a-week job PLUS taking all graduate classes. All of it was awesome! I learned so much! I did so much cool stuff! And yet, the pressure to perfection was utterly paralyzing. Not the work, but the pressure to get a 95% minimum on ALL THE WORK. I got mono and had to be hospitalized and was unconscious for 48 hours and missed half a semester my senior year and STILL manage to pull straight As that semester because I would not entertain any other option. My parent wanted to pull me out of school for the semester due to ALMOST DYING but I not only refused to be pulled out, I refused to quit my 50-hour-a-week job. This struck me as so normal! But CLEARLY IT IS NOT NORMAL to sleep only 4 1/2 hours a night when you are 16! (And clearly you should not be driving a car under those conditions!)

I was a junior in high school before it occurred to me it was an option NOT to go to college. I mentioned it to some friends who all looked equally dumbstruck. I graduated my public high school in a class of 404, of whom 402 (including special ed students) went to 4-year colleges. One went into the marines because his father died a couple weeks before graduation, and one went to community college because he was 24/7 stoned. The expectation was that even the lowest achievers would go to a 4-year college. There simply wasn't another choice. I gotta tell you guys, my classmates thought I was flaky and airheaded, because I only graduated in the top 11% of our class, not the top 5%, and went to college on a less-than-full ride. My senior year was entirely AP classes except for Spanish. (I'd maxed out the available classes and needed one more to be legally enrolled according to the laws at the time, so I took first-year Spanish.) And yet I was one of the class flakes! I always got Bs in foreign language because I fucking suck at foreign languages: when I graduated high school I could only read Spanish and Russian in addition to English. This crashed my GPA and rendered me a flake.

The thing is, the stuff I LEARNED continues to make me really happy. But the pressure and the pace didn't make me happy, and I don't think they really contributed anything to my long-term happiness or success. High school and undergrad were great, but I totally only went to law school because I'd been hyper-achieving for so long and I got into a T10 law school and I didn't know what to do other than hyper-achieve, so I went and did that for like really no reason, but I didn't really receive any counseling at college on how to find a job I LIKED, they were just so excited I was REALLY GOOD AT SCHOOL.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:52 PM on April 6, 2017 [20 favorites]


I just... I read this and it hit so hard: I've been talking to my Big One about his college apps only for like 8 months. I never ask about anything else. In 8 months, I can't think of a time when I asked about anything else. He's an A student and awesome at everything he does. I need to shut the hell up and listen to him.

He's away at State Championships for animation and I've been harping about finding out if his first choice college accepted him... I really need to back the fuck off.
posted by blessedlyndie at 7:27 PM on April 6, 2017 [8 favorites]


Someone actually wrote a book about the intense pressure on students at my high school. It was a public school, consistently ranked among the best in the country. When I was there I think at least one student committed suicide every year. I knew two of them. I knew many more who tried, and suicidal ideation was a daily problem for me when I was there (and many years after I left).

You were looked down on if you didn't take at least a couple AP classes - I mean, are you even planning on going to college? Honors classes were the bare minimum. Regular classes were where the slackers and jocks went.

I was most certainly not an overachiever. I routinely missed class, I slept through all my morning classes. I eventually stopped doing all work altogether. I dropped out at 17 with a 0.6 GPA.

Looking back now, what surprises me is that no one ever saw any red flags. I had very serious undiagnosed mental health problems. I fell asleep in class because I was getting two hours of sleep a night. But no one ever asked why. One teacher used to make fun of me while I was asleep. The class thought it was hilarious. It wasn't something to be concerned about?

Shortly before I dropped out, a teacher told me I was "unemployable." No one ever asked if there was anything wrong. They just told me that I was mortgaging my future, that I had to learn to play the game, that the real world was never going to be this easy. Why weren't absences and failing grades ever a sign that I might have been struggling?

Obviously I haven't totally gotten over this, and obviously this is a one-sided account of everything -- and to be fair, I did have wonderfully nice teachers, too. But those were the classes where the losers like me wound up. And we were losers, so no one expected more of us, and they left us alone.

High-pressure schools affect everyone. They actively teach kids to think of themselves and each other as losers for not being at the top. And I can tell you, it takes a very long time to see yourself differently.

So, you know, that's the other side of things.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:43 PM on April 6, 2017 [9 favorites]


A high acheiving high school student and friend of my son recently commited suicide. Of course it really hit him hard.

It is not as high pressure a school as ones further north like Palo Alto. Still, I have to be careful with my sons because I've heard that there is not just direct pressure from the high achieving Silicon Valley parents--there is also indirect pressure. A student may get a B, and he and his parents will be perfectly fine with that B, but then his high achieving friend will go "Oh, you only got a B? That's too bad. Is that because of your homework or the tests?"

It used to be you worried about bad kids influencing your kids. Now you have to worry about the good kids too.
posted by eye of newt at 7:45 PM on April 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


Those don't sound like good kids, eye of newt. They sound like undermining peer pressure bombs.
posted by scruss at 7:48 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


They sound like the good kids I went to school with. It doesn't even have to be malicious -- someyimes they're just too wrapped up in their own fear of failure to see it as anything but normal.

Eye of newt, I'm so sorry to hear about your son's friend.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:53 PM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


This is basically the Malaysian education system in a nutshell - except you Americans at least value extracurricular work. In Malaysia the only thing that matters are your scores in a couple of national exams. My entire school (a "premier" one) was dealing with hardcore depression and anxiety over these damn exams, but the school's attitude was that we were just "hysterical" and mental health is "just in your head"; if you're sick show up anyway. (The one time they relaxed this was when a student with a congenital heart issue passed out in school and died on the way to hospital, but then it was back to normal a month later.)

I was on medication my final year of school (though the root of my mental health issues weren't exam stresses per se; I'd long given up on school by that point despite being a pretty good student) and ended up taking about half the year off because Xanax and school just do not go well together. They don't really teach you anything - it's all "teach to the test", even if the syllabus is about a zillion years outdated and nobody wants to entertain extra knowledge. I sat for the Major National Exam in such a haze that everytime I start or end an educational thing I get recurring dreams about how I've forgotten to sit this exam and must resit it. That test has proved to be completely useless - I did OK, but nobody really asked what my grades are, just that I did it.

A few years later I went back to my old high school to present a talk - which was basically me perched on the auditorium stage telling everyone to chill out because the big exams don't matter in the long run and there's more to life than the Exam-University-Med School-Doctor pipeline. The teachers in the hall glared at me because I undermined them, but all my juniors were palpably relieved. Nobody had ever told them they'd be OK. It was all Straight As or Die. I was the first person who told them they were fine the way they were. A year later I started a blog with basically the same message and got a massive response - because nobody else was saying this. Things are getting slightly better in that there's more people doing this kind of awareness work, but we're still losing students to suicide, and schools are still Straight As or Die, and it does nobody any favours.

I envy you Americans, even after hearing about cases like these, which makes me wonder why y'all want to emulate Asia so much. You value things that aren't solely Straight As. Initiatives like these can exist. Your worth is spread out a little more. If y'all are having problems - imagine what we're facing!
posted by divabat at 8:04 PM on April 6, 2017 [6 favorites]


"Oh, you only got a B? That's too bad. Is that because of your homework or the tests?"

Duude. That's such normalized talk in class, takes me way back. Some of them don't know any differently, because sadly we don't get emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication taken seriously in high school. I remember meeting a senior who was crying in the hallway about getting into only Cornell. It was weird, it's only when I got to college that people talked...empathetically.
posted by yueliang at 8:05 PM on April 6, 2017


And eye of newt, I am so very sorry to hear about that loss. I hope all the support networks are in place for that :(
posted by yueliang at 8:08 PM on April 6, 2017


.
posted by runcifex at 8:22 PM on April 6, 2017


And eye of newt, I am so very sorry to hear about that loss. I hope all the support networks are in place for that :(

The school had counselors available, plus his friends have been very supportive and they have been watching out for each other. What's particularly sad is that this kid gave a lot of support and encouragement to other kids.
posted by eye of newt at 8:27 PM on April 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


"Shortly before I dropped out, a teacher told me I was "unemployable." "

I was in SIXTH GRADE when a teacher first told my mother I was unemployable. And that it was my mother's fault, because she had too many children. (Not my father's fault, obviously.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:35 PM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


As someone who taught in a high school for twenty years which was originally pretty chill and got more and more high pressured, and I saw more and more kids stressed out--as a matter of fact, in the freshman pre-school orientation week of mornings, their #1 concern was already how were they going to handle all the stress of high school--I have one simple bit of advice that is not a cure-all but is more than a band-aid: DON'T GIVE THEM SO MUCH FUCKING HOMEWORK. That's one of the secrets of the Finnish Success Story, you know.

I have seen terribly heart-rending cases of beautiful sensitive youngsters who were nearly destroyed by the pressure to achieve the markers of success. And yes, a lot of it is due to our difficult economy these days. Kids visualize the bleak life ahead of them of years and years of student debt and no way to pay for their future children's higher education. Teenagers need hope, not stark visions, believe me. There is enough built-in stress in negotiating adolescence as it is.
posted by kozad at 8:44 PM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Don’t worry, it will be over soon

Maybe not the ideal suicide prevention slogan
posted by thelonius at 8:54 PM on April 6, 2017 [8 favorites]


The flip side is that I went to a normal-ass public school, but went to college with a lot of Lex/Stuy/TJ grads, and when I was there I discovered I was at a giant disadvantage because they were all just so much harder-working, knowledgeable, and "meta-knowledgeable," by which I'm talking about things like how to study, how to optimize their GPAs, etc.

I actually wondered whether the suicide rate at these places was really higher than average. I mean, I was stressed out and at times suicidal in high school too, and I even blamed it partially on academic stress and high expectations -- but knowing what I know now, my high school wasn't actually very rigorous! Obviously any amount of suicide is too much, but could it be that being an American teenager is just difficult in general? So I checked their executive summary, which showed [pdf] that the rates of suicidal ideation seemed to be roughly comparable at Lexington (15%) vs. nationwide (17%). (For comparison, the rates of suicidal ideation for LGBT teens at Lexington were >40%. Sounds about right from what I remember.) Suicide attempts were actually lower than average at Lex (2% vs. 8%, though of course there's a small numbers problem with calculating the rate).

If the suicide rate isn't that much higher at these pressure-cooker high schools and the outcomes are so much better, doesn't that indicate that the real problem is that (because of the way school districts are funded) more American high schools aren't like Lex? I mean I realize that's sort of a provocative way to put it, and I don't want to come off as though I'm trivializing mental health problems. Mental health is very important and I'm glad Lex is taking steps to address it. But like Eyebrows said, these high schools also offer tremendous opportunities for people -- people I knew from fancy high schools were doing things like linear algebra as high school juniors and taking other courses that are just laughably out of reach most places in America, to say nothing of the crazy good extracurricular activities they seem to have there. If the perceived cost of poor mental health isn't actually that closely related to academic stress, and it's something that people are actually misperceiving as a cause, then maybe we're asking the wrong questions here. I don't know.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:24 AM on April 7, 2017 [7 favorites]


I was lucky in my high school, because while it was intense college prep and "take lots of APs!!" and "here is where everyone is going to college", it was also an old hippie school where students who elected to be artsy non-academic types were still valued, and students who weren't very good at academics but who had been going to the school since Pre-K were still valued, and students who really decided to lean in to stonerdom were still valued.

I had a mini-nervous breakdown my junior year-- similar to what Eyebrows described, I was hardly sleeping, always studying or attending chamber choir or musical rehearsals or running student government events, and it all came to a head the night before a history test. The thing that helped me get over it was that my mom made me stay home the next day, and called the school to let them know the pressure was getting to me and they needed to do a better job of helping me handle it. When I went back to school, my history teacher did two things: first, he offered me an apology in front of the whole class (making everyone aware that pushing yourself to the edge was not what he wanted for any of us) even though he hadn't actually done anything to me in particular. Second, he pulled me aside after class and said that if I ever started feeling a similar way, I should just let him know and whatever project was stressing me out would just...wait. He told me that he knew I wanted to do my best, and he knew that I knew the material, but that if I needed extra time to get ready for something because of my insane schedule, that was completely fine and I just needed to come to him and let him know.

I can't describe how much that reaction changed my perception, and my path forward for the rest of high school, college, grad school, and grad school again. You can ask teachers for help? Not just about content, but coping with workload? Game changer. He basically told me that I already had the grades, so let's figure out how to get you graduated and living your life in a healthy and happy way. It's terrible that more teachers aren't empowered (or willing) to do this.

I always got Bs in foreign language because I fucking suck at foreign languages: when I graduated high school I could only read Spanish and Russian in addition to English. This crashed my GPA and rendered me a flake.

I think I've mentioned this before, but this was literally the subject of my college application essay, which semi-accidentally ended up in me attending an Ivy. My essay was basically "I get B's in French, but I won't stop taking it, because I like reading books in French, and I don't really care that it hurts my GPA, because learning something I love is more important than mostly random scores." I only mention the Ivy thing because I think they were already starting to realize that having students who were obsessed with scores to an unhealthy degree was becoming a toxic and dangerous thing, and having an essay that said "I am bad at a thing, but I like the thing, so whatever" was a novelty in the face of so many "I am excellent here is my excellence I promise to never fail at anything" takes. (I did my best to repay their faith in me by bullying my classmates to sit down and watch terrible movies instead of studying as often as possible.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:22 AM on April 7, 2017 [6 favorites]


Hoo boy. I grew up in a neighboring pressure cooker community. Two high schools, one with a strong college-prep bent, and the other a mixed vocational/prep environment. I got extremely lucky because I went to the more vocational one and got the opportunity to learn about things OTHER than getting good grades. Even at that comparatively less type-A high school, the pressure was on. Class differences were especially palpable because of the mixture of vocationally and academically focused students.

Schools like these are ground zero for the liberal notion of meritocracy. My high school was/is among the "wokest" in the nation when it comes to LGBTQ rights, efforts at an anti-racist curriculum, and overall ideological liberalism. But underneath that is the brutal crypto-Calvinist philosophy that everyone will be sorted out according to how hard they work and what fate they essentially "deserve." I grew up under the shadow of The Great Or-Else. Get good grades (Or Else). Get into a good college (Or Else). I didn't understand until I became an adult that a combination of classist snobbery and legitimate precarity were at the heart of (Or Else).

I'm still recovering from the cultural lessons I learned from that system. It's a slight mindfuck to be in an extremely politically liberal community, and yet still feel like the underlying ideology is conformist and without much compassion for those who fail to measure up.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:26 AM on April 7, 2017 [9 favorites]


It's a slight mindfuck to be in an extremely politically liberal community, and yet still feel like the underlying ideology is conformist and without much compassion for those who fail to measure up.

This was true for my high school as well. I went to a nationally ranked boarding school, and don't get me wrong, I'm glad I went. It was a place of many freak flags flying. Short of actual exposed breasts, which the weather prevented, no one bothered you for dress code nonsense, and you could say and believe what you wished. But under that was a sharp division: most kids (the ones without ancestors and/or giant piles of money) were there to achieve great things and learn at university level; the rules applied to them and they applied the rules. Kids would leave hard exams joking about having been raped, or sometimes just grabbing their bottoms and waddling for effect. If you dropped your tray in the dining hall, causing an echoing crash (which it had to do, every time), you'd get a round of sarcastic applause. One kid used his programming talents to create a simple ASCII game mocking a developmentally disabled guy who worked there. Make the jokes or be the joke: that was the rule.

The little meannesses took a toll. I had to be told much later that I was a distant person as a friend, when I believed I was just keeping the brakes on a natural clinginess. A difficult high school experience can mess up your ability to form long-term bonds.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:21 AM on April 7, 2017 [6 favorites]


I imagine collage admissions increasing importance mostly just indicates that many collages have become degree mills where almost anyone who gets in graduates.

We fail maybe 35% in freshman classes, but that basic screening drops off quickly. A German university or Georgia Tech fails that many seniors, so their degrees actually mean you learned something.

A Stanford degree means you're smart, worked hard in High School, and have smart and rich friends, but says little about your actual knowledge from your university education.

It's ultimately : Who is the university's customer?

If it's the student and/or their parents, then they are happy to pay lots of money, but ultimately they regard the product as the degree and want it delivered without them personally doing as much work.

If otoh it's society, then society should bear the full financial cost of the education, and society can reasonably expect a stream of good students with a sane initial sorting by university grades.

Imho, we should give everyone the funding to attend university, but universities should grade harshly and students who do poorly should find another path in life.


As for the suicide in high school, these high school students are stressed largely due to this "you might not get into the best place because other students have more As than you" bullshit. These kids do not even know what university means, only that their parents say it's super important.

A more mature university student can more realistically process that their low grades as a productive message like "play less video games", "look for work as a systems administrator or web developer instead of as a lower level developer", "quit and build a career you can start now", etc. All concrete issues they can address, not some vague fear of the supernatural imparted by their parents.

Kids should be taught to enjoy doing the sorts of things they will be judged for later in life. Not given irrational fears of intangible assessments by far away strangers.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:50 AM on April 7, 2017


A Stanford degree means you're smart, worked hard in High School, and have smart and rich friends, but says little about your actual knowledge from your university education.

Stanford, like many top universities, benefits from selection bias. They graduate amazing students because, guess what, they bring in the best students.

A German university or Georgia Tech fails that many seniors, so their degrees actually mean you learned something.

I'm still not 100% sure that there's any meaningful academic differentiation between universities other than facilities. They're mostly dependent on the quality of students they can get versus other universities.
posted by GuyZero at 10:06 AM on April 7, 2017


The flip side is that I went to a normal-ass public school, but went to college with a lot of Lex/Stuy/TJ grads, and when I was there I discovered I was at a giant disadvantage because they were all just so much harder-working, knowledgeable, and "meta-knowledgeable," by which I'm talking about things like how to study, how to optimize their GPAs, etc.


As someone that went to one of those schools (TJHSST), I can't really say that my college experience was quite the same. There was an oddity at times for me where I had a hard time believing that some people had even been admitted to college (I mean really, you're in a chem lab and you honestly don't know how to find the volume of a rectangular prism? And even when it's explained to you, you can't seem to understand the concept?). But for me, the biggest issue that I found was that the side effect of going to the high pressure high school was that I was used to having an incredibly structured life for 4 years of high school. I basically always knew exactly what I was doing at any given time of the day, because if I didn't I'd never had made it through. Then I hit college, and there's basically no structure at all. I was completely and totally unprepared for that, and it ultimately became my downfall at college. (Although I still feel a lot of the reason for the failure was the despair of a combination of trying to pass an organic chem class as someone with mild colorblindness and having a EE class that was required for my major that was taught by someone that I literally could not understand more than about one word in 12 from him - and by the time I'd figure out what he was saying, I'd realize he was talking about his research instead of anything related to the class.) But ultimately, going from the high structure high school life to a no-structure college life just didn't work for me, and at 17, I just couldn't find a way to adjust my life to that to make things work.
posted by piper28 at 11:58 AM on April 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


Then I hit college, and there's basically no structure at all. I was completely and totally unprepared for that, and it ultimately became my downfall at college.

Yeah, that's a good point; this also hit me really hard, especially as someone who struggles with executive function in general. I wish there were something intermediate between those two environments that would be a normal part of the transition, so young people wouldn't have to negotiate going from highly structured environments to environments where there are no rules. I remember really, really struggling with just normal life stuff even apart from classes and ended up making a lot of really terrible decisions (like letting myself drift towards a 3 pm to 5 am schedule, sleeping through most of my classes and telling myself I'd make it up later, etc). If I didn't have to deal with figuring out how to be an adult at the same time as school suddenly got much more competitive and demanding, I might have actually learned something in college. (Also ADHD meds would probably have helped, but that's a separate story...)

Maybe a luxury problem to have in some ways -- but I also suspect that a lot of people might have benefited from a less abrupt transition to college, if not necessarily for the same reasons.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:05 PM on April 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


I don't know. I don't think the structure-to-no-structure thing is particularly a problem of students who went to high-pressure schools. I see that often with students who went to pretty ordinary schools but who were involved in sports or other activities.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:39 PM on April 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


I wish there were something intermediate between those two environments that would be a normal part of the transition, so young people wouldn't have to negotiate going from highly structured environments to environments where there are no rules.

GAP YEARS!!! Depending on what you do in your gap year you might still run into the "zomg no structure" problem, but at the same time it's a good opportunity for you to start figuring out how to build a structure that's not wholly dependent on some other authority. You could join a program that gives you that sense of structure, or you could build your own year, or you could just chill, whatever.

I took a gap year right after high school because I was burned out (see previous comment) and it was very structure-less. I travelled with family for a bit, got into a youth journalist program, took dance lessons, but otherwise it was very casual and relaxed. It was one of the best things I could have done for myself: free from expectations and toxic environments, I could figure out what I wanted to do for myself for a change.

When I did it it was practically unheard of in my home country, but now it's become more of a thing (though it's funny that one of the local papers keeps asking me every few years to talk about it for an article, as though I'm some sort of Gap Year Grandma).
posted by divabat at 5:23 PM on April 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it's a good point. I was trying to think of why I never really thought of it as a serious option, and I think it's because when I was applying to school in the US, gap years had sort of a stigma as a rich kid thing (but not in an aspirational way, in a sort of "the third generation snowboards" kind of way). I realize now that's not super rational, because of course you could do AmeriCorps or WWOOF or be a lab tech or temp, or do any other thing adults do to get paid and/or get room and board. But you don't know any better when you're like, 16-17.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:21 PM on April 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


having an essay that said "I am bad at a thing, but I like the thing, so whatever" was a novelty in the face of so many "I am excellent here is my excellence I promise to never fail at anything" takes.

I was doing family therapy with an 8th-grader who was really hard on himself and held himself up to terrifyingly high standards, so I was trying to introduce the concept of doing things because you enjoy them, not just because you want to be perfect at them (of enjoying the journey and not just the destination). I asked him if there was anything he did that he liked but that he wasn't very good at, and gave examples of things that I enjoy but am horrible at, to normalize it. He shrugged and couldn't think of anything, and so his mom said, "How about guitar? You're pretty good at that! And soccer? You're really good at that, too." She was actually really supportive of him and was really strongly trying to make sure that he got whatever mental-health help he needed, so I'm not judging her negatively, but it was like the concept of enjoying things without being good at them was just so far outside the realm of possibility for her that my question hadn't even registered.
posted by lazuli at 4:07 PM on April 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


Yes, that blindness carries over into adulthood. Anyone who's joined a pickup softball or volleyball game has seen the people (usually, but not exclusively guys) who take it way too seriously and become frustrated and angry when their team doesn't excel. Not far from Lexington is Andover, whose high school has this motto in gold letters over the front door: EXCELLENCE IN EVERYTHING. In case any of the kids might be satisfied with anything sub-excellent.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:19 AM on April 9, 2017


A Lexington High student died by suicide this weekend. We are all reeling and in shock.

This is sad and serious stuff.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:00 AM on April 10, 2017


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posted by lazuli at 9:48 AM on April 10, 2017


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posted by en forme de poire at 10:29 AM on April 10, 2017


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