Helping students cope with the pressure to succeed
By most accounts, Mercer Island, Washington, is an ideal place to raise a family. It's expensive (just about anywhere near Seattle is), but there are perks. The public schools are among the highest-achieving in the state. The kids here seem to have everything, including near-perfect grades.
"A quarter of our class has GPAs over 3.9," said student Zitong Wang.
It all sounds pretty good, right? Correspondent Lee Cowan spoke with Wang and three fellow members of the Class of 2020 – Thomas Lee, Meghana Kakubal and Joe Gormley – during their last semester before heading off to college.
And it's that last bit – college – that was first and foremost on their minds.
"We all tell ourselves that our GPA doesn't define us, but it really does here," said Gormley.
"The end goal isn't to learn, it's to get a number," said Lee.
Cowan asked, "How much of kind of what you guys have been working towards is about getting into a top school?"
"A lot of it," they replied. For Gormley? "All of it."
With record-low acceptance rates at top college, it's pretty well-known that students feel pressured to out-compete each other. But what isn't widely known is the toll that pressure can take.
When asked how that manifests itself, Lee replied, "Physical tears and, like, mental breakdowns from failure and what we consider failure (which is really nowhere near what other people would consider failure), and also the fear of failure."
Kakubal said, "It's not unexpected to see someone crying in the bathroom or coming to the lunch table and sobbing, and then, you know, five minutes later cleaning themselves up and going to class pretending like it didn't happen."
Gormley said, "A close friend of mine was struggling very, very badly and almost took his life in front of me."
That kind of mental anguish has stayed largely below the research radar. In fact, psychologist Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University, actually stumbled on their troubles. Back in the '90s she was studying children struggling in low-income families, and she used as a control group students from more affluent schools – ones we generally think "have it all."
But they were suffering, too.
Cowan asked, "What did you think was the cause?"
"At that point I wasn't even sure it was a real thing," Luthar replied.
"What do they all have in common?"
"Unfortunately, what they all have in common is this unrelenting, insidious pressure to achieve and do ever more. Not even succeed, but it's relentless, it's keep succeeding."
And the ripple effects of that unrelenting stress can be debilitating. Luthar spent more than two decades studying the problem. She consistently found that students from affluent schools are suffering from higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety – as much as three times the national norm.
Luthar said, "Nobody, including myself, could fathom that truly kids who are living lives of privilege in terms of the educational opportunities and homes they live in, neighborhoods and so on, that they really could be doing more poorly than the average American kid."
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation now notes that excessive pressure to excel ranks right up with poverty, trauma and discrimination as factors hurting adolescent wellness.
Liz Evans, a parent and a pediatrician on Mercer Island, said, "To hear that our children, children that are in high-achieving schools and affluent communities have the same risks is really startling. In our office, at least, in Mercer Island Pediatrics, we feel like psychiatrists most of the time."
Cowan asked, "What kind of things do you hear from students?"
"We have kids that cut out of stress," Evans replied. "We have eating disorders. The younger children tend to have more somatic complaints. So tummy aches and headaches // 17:12:19 And as they get older, it becomes more of the substance abuse and suicidality that becomes more of a concern."
Another Mercer Island parent, John Martin, has voiced his concerns enough about the privileged at-risk to know what you're probably thinking right about now: "So, it sounds a little whiny. We start talkin' about affluence and, 'Oh, these poor rich kids, you know, they're depressed and they're anxious and wah, wah, wah,' right? 'Eh, too bad for you, right? You make some good coin. You got resources. What's your problem, buddy?'
"When it's your kid struggling," Martin said, "it becomes real."
But many parents, even teachers, aren't aware of just how much stress is hurting, because many teens don't talk about it … to anyone.
Student Joe Gormley said, "You don't want to show that you're struggling. You don't want to show that waking up in the morning's an accomplishment for you. It kind of strips you down."
Meghana Kakubal said, "When you have so much on your plate, but you have to prove you're capable, you can't show any signs of weakness, or talk to the counselor and get help. When you're hiding it, it just becomes worse."
That lack of openness and communication is what Luthar zeroed in on when she was asked to come to Mercer Island to help students cope with that pressure to succeed.
Her advice: "Have a conversation. And if your child does tell you, 'I'm overwhelmed, I'm so anxious I can't sleep, I'm terrified,' that's the time when you pull back. Ask your child."
She visited twice – once in 2006 and again in 2019. The data she gathered sparked a community conversation that has helped develop prevention and awareness programs, including reducing the stigma around mental health counseling
Zitong Wang said, "When you realize your worries are also shared by the three-hundred-and-sixty-something students in your class, you all of a sudden feel like it's not so bad."
Cowan asked, "Where's the pressure coming from, you think? Is it from parents? Is it from your teachers? Is it pressure that you put on yourselves?"
"It's all three, I think," said Thomas Lee.
Wang said, "It's like you were made to, like, go on the path."
Cowan asked, "What's the answer? They've tried to de-emphasize sort of the importance of AP (advanced placement) and honor courses. Has that helped?"
"I think it's really difficult," said Gormley. "It's really trying to change the culture. It's been, like, put into our minds when we were in kindergarten and first grade."
COVID, however, changed everyone's calculations about everything, and sent student stress levels on a whole new kind of roller coaster.
Luthar and her non-profit research firm, Authentic Connections, surveyed 14,000 students just after the pandemic started last year. What they found was a drop in the rates of serious depression and anxiety. "Consistently lower," she said. "It's like a bunch of snow days that you got unexpectedly!"
In a follow-up Zoom call, our group of now socially-distanced students told Cowan exactly that.
"These past few months have honestly not been too bad," said Lee.
Wang said, "We can deal with not having grades. We can deal with not putting our academics first, not going around the clock. We can live without school. But there are some things that we can't live without."
But the respite was short. Just a few months later, as schoolwork increased again, Luthar found the levels of depression and anxiety shot right back up to pre-pandemic levels, or worse.
Kakubal said, "You're already in a transition moment in life, trying to go to college. And all of a sudden there were so many more factors to consider. It's not just deciding which college; it's deciding how you're going to do college."
We do expect a lot of our young people, but Suniya Luthar's research has shown that as students head back to school this fall, many of them will be expecting even more of themselves. That's admirable – as long as achievement isn't the only measure of a young person's worth.
Luthar said, "I want to emphasize my message is not that kids should be told, 'Don't work hard.' Absolutely not. Do work hard. [But] there is a point where we value your sanity and your well-being, and we are not willing to let that be compromised."
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Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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