Teens, stress, and suicide: A day in the life

Meghan, a teen panelist at the Wisdom 2.0 Youth Conference, is concerned about teen health, suicide, and drug abuse—all being caused by the pressure and stress they experience.

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On July 7, 2011, Clayton Carlson, a 23-year-old Palo Alto, CA resident who graduated from Palo Alto High School (aka “Paly”) in 2006, committed suicide on a local train track in Palo Alto, California.

There have been 7 teen-specific suicides since May of 2009. So I sat down with Paly High School Senior Meghan Byrd to ask her about teen life, the pressures of being a teen today and the epidemic of recent teen suicides in the local area.

Meghan, a future teen panelist at the upcoming Wisdom 2.0 Youth Conference, is concerned about teen health and tragic stories like Clayton Carlson’s. She recalls checking her Facebook newsfeed after a student committed suicide at Paly in January of this year, and seeing dozens of statuses of friends on Facebook that show the letters, “R.I.P.” This has become so commonplace, she says, that it isn’t even a surprise anymore.

Although self-destructive behavior has been a problem for a few years now, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) has failed to appropriately address the issue. Where some kids do end up committing suicide, Meghan tells me, others might engage in less serious destructive behaviors including cutting, drug use to stay up at night (e.g., illegal use of Adderal and Ritalin, not used as prescribed for ADHD), lack of sleep to meet the demands and rigors set forth by teachers regarding quantity of homework, binge drinking, and, among injured athletes, continuing to play in order to be scouted for recruitment.  These negative behaviors, Meghan contends, are the norm and are often commonplace amongst the schools in the PAUSD.

It is clear that students are under increased pressures related to school performance, getting into a prestigious college, and being the best at everything they do. (When standing on the Paly campus, you can actually see Stanford University, a dream school for so many high school students in the PAUSD.) When we reflect on the pressures adults put on ourselves, and our use and abuse of Band-Aid approaches, it is no wonder teens are learning to model what they see. How can we expect them to do differently, if we fail to teach them what that looks like and how to do it?

Meghan reflects on the impact these suicides have had on her and her community especially when the details made national news. Example: Neighboring Gunn High School lost four teens to suicide on a local Palo Alto train track. Students got one “mental health day” to process the loss, but is that enough? What more should we all be doing before this happens yet again?

After the January suicide I mentioned, which took place at Meghan’s high school right before finals, a female senior hung herself at her friend’s house. Returning to school to take finals during this time was difficult for Meghan and many of her fellow students.  These teens were offered that they were too distraught that they could speak to their teachers about rescheduling their exams, but some, like Meghan, didn’t want to risk negatively affecting their resulting grades.

Students are continually worried about the reactions and potentially negative consequences of asserting themselves at school and in their homes. This spring Meghan, like many students at Paly, had a test or project due in every single class on one single day.  She tried to contact some of her teachers to see if they could be flexible regarding this dilemma. But it was not until her mother sent an email to the administration that the teachers really took the appeal seriously.

For Meghan, a typical day begins at 7 a.m. She wakes, has breakfast, and gets to school.  She then prepares to turn in homework and take a test or quiz in at least one course almost daily. After school, she participates in two hours of daily lacrosse practice.  She then gets home, eats, showers and is finally able to begin her five-plus hours of homework. She starts at 8pm and goes to sleep at 1 am. (This isn’t accounting for the time for the entire week every three weeks that she doesn’t get home until 9:30 because she is working on her school paper commitment.  Nor does this include any time she tries to have with friends socially, or downtime to just be with family and herself.) This schedule, Meghan says, is quite common for most of her classmates at Paly.

No wonder why teens have a hard time without stimulation and with silence: they rarely get any. Then it starts all over again, Groundhog Day, a life of racing to get somewhere—the next class, the next practice, the next thing to accomplish and put on one’s college application. And at what cost? Are we teaching the youth of today the race to never being happy and at peace with who they are, as they are?

When it comes to stressed students, schools and parents often acknowledge that there is a problem. But few take action to change things.  It could be your son or daughter or your high school student that we’re talking about here. This problem knows no boundaries and no stereotypes.

What can parents and educators do to help kids like Meghan? She and I have some suggestions. Please look these over, try them, and share your own ideas here.

Suggestions to Parents

  • Look for red flags in your kids: changes in eating, and sleeping, reduced enjoyment in previously favored activities.
  • Concerned about your teen? Err on the side of caution. It is better to be safe than sorry.  This might require you to get your teen to the appropriate doctor or mental health professional.

Meghan suggests:

  • It helps to not put pressure on your teen to take the most rigorous classes, especially if they’re already feeling pressure.
  • Remind your teen that success isn’t about having a 4.0 GPA. It’s about having life skills and values like accountability, resourcefulness, honesty, and the like. Suggest that they just do their best, and let them know that’s good enough!
  • Remember that your teen is still a teenager—not an adult—and that they need your support and love. Through this a sense of safety can be created: your teen can come to you if he or she needs to talk to you, and won’t be yelled at or get in trouble.

Suggestions to School Administration

  • There is a point where having a high volume of homework doesn’t increase outcome regarding future success. Find this point, and step back from it.
  • Self-care for school administration, too, is hugely important in creating a healthy school community.
  • Pay attention to signs and changes in your student’s behaviors in and out of the classroom and report any concerns to the appropriate person(s). Again, err on the side of caution; it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Meghan suggests:

  • Doing five-plus hours of homework per night is going to cause sleep deprivation, unneeded stress, anxiety, depression and worry. Give us a break!
  • Teachers can be flexible with the amount of homework they give, the frequency of tests they administer, and due dates for assignments!
  • Teach basic life skills that can be applied to today and prepare students for their future unlike archaic academia that isn’t useful in life.