Issues of Mental Health on the path to (and upon arrival at) “Academically Elite Schools”

Palo Alto
Palo Alto, California

In a recent Times article, reporter Matt Richtel explores problems of mental health in the high school community of Palo Alto, California. As one of the nation’s wealthiest districts, the SAT scores in Palo Alto are so high on average that a student who places in the 75th percentile in the district has a 2,200 (which is the 99th percentile for high school seniors). The youth of Palo Alto grow up in the shadows of Stanford University and the headquarters of Google, which places that require outstanding academic achievement. Many students of this city feel compelled to attend universities like Stanford, despite the lowering acceptance rates of such universities. Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, remarks, “I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”

In recent years, the suicide rate of Palo Alto teenagers has soared, including a suicide cluster in 2015 and another in 2009 (which is especially surprising because suicide clusters only comprise five percent of suicides in the United States). Richtel raises an unsettling question in his column: “Does a culture of hyperachievement deserve any blame for this cluster?” The youth of Palo Alto often feel pressured to earn the highest possible grades and SAT scores, while also achieving excellence in various extracurricular activities. In an editorial of a local paper, Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, wrote of the emotionally paralyzing experience of her education, in which she suffered several panic attacks and missed several periods: “We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick. We, as a community, have completely lost sight of what it means to learn and receive an education. Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?” In this statement, Walworth advocates a satisfying high school experience, rather than what she believes to be an oppressive battle for the greatest possible academic achievement. Similarly, Pope encourages parents to embrace “downtime, playtime, family time.” Rather than parents “pushing” their children to earn straight As and perfect SAT scores, Pope claims that parents should support a relaxing lifestyle for sons and daughters, which will help these youth avoid the current severe mental health issues of the teenage community in this region.

However, the increasing suicides of top-tier colleges emphasize that mental health remains an issue when students arrive on university campuses. Two sophomores at Yale killed themselves this year, and three students ended their lives during the 2014 fall semester at the University of Virginia. In the suicide note of Luchang Wang, a student at Yale, she posted on Facebook, “I only wish I could’ve had some time. I needed time to work things out and to wait for new medication to kick in, but I couldn’t do it in school, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having to leave for a full year, or of leaving and never being readmitted.” The fact that the terrifying possibility of not being readmitted to Yale (upon returning from medical leave) contributed to Wang’s suicide emphasizes how students often feel forced to succeed in extremely competitive environments, and feel as though their lives are utterly worthless if they fail to achieve this ambitious goal.

What is at stake if such large numbers of young people wish to end their lives? How can society ensure that competitive high schoolers and college students at “academically elite schools” truly enjoy their education rather than consider it to be a place of unbearable pressure?

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