Extreme expectations mean extreme stress for the teenagers trying to graduate from California’s elite schools. What’s life like inside a pressure cooker? Just ask the kids who are living it.
Adults have many opinions about teenagers, and for the most part they’re negative. Teenagers are unpredictable and mean, we say, or they’re lazy and entitled, or they’re self-involved, selfie-taking, Snapchat-addicted narcissists who don’t understand how easy they have it.
It’s easy to forget how challenging being a teenager can be, how the world seems ready to foist adult responsibilities onto you without offering any adult freedom in return. And our clichéd view of teenage angst makes it easy to dismiss the struggles that people go through as they move from youth to adulthood, easy to make the assumption that every feeling of stress or strain is merely the result of an unfortunate combination of hormones and melodrama.
But in the affluent, high-achieving communities crowded around Silicon Valley, there is one aspect of teenagers’ lives that parents treat with the utmost seriousness: their child’s acceptance to an elite (preferably Ivy League) university.
When you’re a teenager in these environments, with a family full of brilliant minds who worked their way through Stanford or MIT or Harvard, the pressure to succeed can become a driving force and a source of anxiety. The sense of competition and a desire to excel is often paired with the crushing fear that one mistake will ruin their chances irreparably.
We often think of work — and workaholism — as a problem of the adult world, and yet young people in these situations are driven so hard to achieve that they often crack. The evidence? Recurring clusters of suicides at these schools, some of which have rates five times the national average. But while each of these tragedies brings extensive media scrutiny, they also generate many more bad opinions based on clickbait headlines and deep presumptions about the motives of the kids who struggle to cope.
High school students in 2017 exist in a different environment than that of their parents and, in some cases, even their older siblings. Teenagers in the U.S., for example, grew up in the shadow of 9/11, and have never known life without the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones. They are growing up in a fundamentally different world from the one most 20-and 30-somethings did. If we want to understand what it’s like to be a teenager in a high-pressure academic environment in 2017, we must listen to the teens who are living that reality.
So that’s what we decided to do. We asked students what they really felt and to put their thoughts down and share them. So here are high school students and recent graduates from some of California’s most stressful schools, giving us their views. Some writers asked for their names to be changed, but others did not. And while we have excerpted some text from longer essays, these stories are otherwise unedited, unchanged and unvarnished. They give us all a glimpse of what it feels like to be on the inside of such a demanding, confusing environment at such a young age.
— Katie MacBride
Marley, Tamalpais High School Graduate
I was a well-behaved kid. Straight As, varsity athlete, president of a school club. Safe, marketable hobbies and no interest in drinking or drugs. I prided myself, perhaps a bit egotistically, on being “good.” In fact, I kept nearly all of my self-esteem hinged on the idea of being universally liked, even as I lost sleep, weight, and my psychological well-being to it.
At age seventeen, just barely a month into my senior year of high school, I cracked. I remember turning to my mother as we crossed through heavy fog on the Golden Gate Bridge and frowning. “I feel weird,” I said. She asked me to explain. I shook my head. I couldn’t place what “weird” meant. It meant I was sure something bad would happen if we kept going across that bridge. It meant my insides were on fire. An hour or so later, I was sitting on a park bench after throwing up in a public trash can, thoroughly convinced I was dying. I spent the next week home from school in an anxiety-induced stupor, a fog of my own clouding my room with a rapid-fire succession of pure, uncomfortable adrenaline and confused depression.
Seemingly overnight, I went from a capable person just going through a bad patch to a shaking, paranoid mess… I had never heard the word “bipolar” used outside the context of disparaging comments about an unpopular teacher’s personality, or maybe in a gritty thriller to describe a villain. To me, it may as well have meant “failure.”
Depression manifested itself first, coupled with a sudden anxiety not confined to grades and social events but whether or not I would die if I set foot outside my house. With the anxiety came a near-constant nausea, and with the depression came a curious amount of “highs” in which I felt somewhat like I had been buried in an anthill.
“I didn’t seriously consider mental health until my junior year of high school when my school district lost four high school students or recent alums to suicide.”
Josh, Gunn High School Graduate
For the good part of freshman and sophomore year my mental health was fine. It mostly came when I was an upperclassman, the more stressful years of high school. Since I was a social person I felt like telling people I was struggling with mental health issues would make me a taboo. I felt like people would not want to be friends with me. I felt like I couldn’t deal with school, social life, and my mental health issues, so I just tried to sweep my mental health under the rug. I tried to avoid it as much as possible.
Chloe, Gunn High School Graduate
Many of my friends and peers struggled with mental health conditions, and I became very involved in community mental health work. I spent a great deal of my time fighting for easier access to quality mental health care — there are so many barriers that prevent young people from accessing the services that they need and deserve, and I really threw myself into that work. As a result, I was constantly surrounded by psychiatrists, school counselors, social workers, and other people who were very focused on mental health. I think that being in this environment encouraged me to think a lot about my own personal wellness and what that meant to me.
Shawna, Gunn High School Graduate
I didn’t seriously consider mental health until my junior year of high school when my school district lost four high school students or recent alums to suicide.
My peers and I would boast about how little we slept, and none of us understood the concept of rest. I’d always keep a tab with some sort of “productive work” open on my laptop in case someone walked by while I was watching a movie or surfing Tumblr. Stress was normal to me, but I had no idea how to cope with crises. Amid this 24/7 racehorse cycle of academics, increasing family tensions, lack of sleep, insecurities about not being enough, outsiders’ perceptions of what kind of person I should be, a burdensome sense of responsibility for being the glue at home, and the aftereffects of my classmates’ deaths, I was diagnosed with depression my senior year.
Personal identity became a huge issue for me. I did not come out as gay until after I graduated, and the internal struggle of convincing myself I was simply a “late bloomer,” or confused, never really left.
Adults in general never quite seemed to know how to handle a kid in crisis who couldn’t be solved simply. I never felt comfortable disclosing what exactly was “wrong” with me, so I gave the blanket “I’ve been sick” excuse many times. I was afraid of appearing weak in front of figures of authority.
For me, I believe that some of my stress came from friends, family, and school. Other than that, I found that instead of it being something or someone else impacting my mental health, it was internal. I discovered that my poor mental health came from self-image problems. I felt like I had not reached my full potential in multiple areas of my life. I was not the best me I could be.
By my senior year, I was student body president, editor-in-chief of the yearbook, and the leader of many community mental health initiatives. Combined with academics, this definitely wasn’t always an easy load
to bear. It was manageable most of the time, but when things went wrong and were out of my control — such as the death of a loved one or a stressful situation with family — I often struggled to take care of myself without sacrificing some of the things I was working on.
“Adults in general never quite seemed to know how to handle a kid in crisis who couldn’t be solved simply.”
In the middle of my junior year, one of my best friends took his own life. This destroyed me. I literally cannot describe my emotions because words will not do it justice. There was a time when I felt like I could not make it. I thought that I would take my own life eventually. At one point, it was a matter of when, not if. I felt weak and felt my life was not worth anything.
The stress and academic rigor of school set unattainable expectations of perfection. My parents started fighting a lot more once I reached high school; my relationship with my father also deteriorated over conflicts in ideology and the kind of life I should lead; pressures increased as the need to get into prestigious colleges loomed closer and closer; my body was changing and growing; friendships and relationships took on forms I hadn’t before navigated, and possibly most impactful was a classmate and childhood friend’s death by suicide in my junior year. After that, the grief and guilt from not having been closer, not having been more aware, yanked at me from all directions.
Typically, parents didn’t prioritize mental health in their lives, so students didn’t grow up with an understanding for its value. Silicon Valley also prides itself on being the valley of workaholics — students grow up in a culture that generally frowns upon doing things that aren’t productive. And because college was seen as the end goal, the mindset was “I’ll work now to get into college and worry about my mental health later.”
Sam, current sophomore at a high school in Silicon Valley
I think some misconceptions parents have about their high school students is that mental health struggles can’t happen to their children. They think mental health resources are important, but they don’t see it as something that their child would need. They think it always happens to someone else’s kid.
I worry that, despite frequent discussions in my area around the mental health stigma, there’s still many in the community who believe that mental health issues are someone else’s problem, not their own. If we look at physical health, nobody says physical health is just cancer or diabetes or pneumonia. We say physical health is also the little things — like a sore back, a cold, etc. In physical health, by making people aware of the little things, a heightened awareness of one’s physical health is developed, helping people get treatment early on to prevent the onset of more serious conditions. However, when it comes to mental health, we focus on extreme cases and stories, which develops the mindset that mental health is someone else’s problem, not our own. For example, last year, my school had a speaker come who suffered during high school with severe bipolar disorder. While I thought the speaker was amazing, I can’t help but feel that when we, as a community, talk mainly about some extreme stories, we make people believe that mental health is limited to these extreme cases.
I lost all of the self-esteem I’d built using grades, academic awards, and sports achievements. I didn’t talk to friends. I didn’t go to people’s houses. I scratched my way through classes with a variety of half-assed “zen relaxation” techniques… I divulged as little details as I could to anyone, preferring to shut myself in bathroom stalls or the dark of my room.
An immigrant, my father would remind me every day how much he sacrificed and how hard he worked so we could have an education in the United States. Hanging out with friends, watching movies, playing music would be used as leverage to make me focus first on my grades. Anything else — mental health, physical health, relationships, faith, even family gatherings — was secondary.
Most of my days were spent half in class and half in my room studying. I didn’t often complain because that was just normal to me — I didn’t know any other kind of life. My peers and I all grew up with the same cultural norms of work, work, work in the Silicon Valley. But in high school, as I began to venture outside of what I knew and explore the kind of person I wanted to be, the uncertainty and insecurities that rose to the surface collided with my overwhelmingly stressful lifestyle, and I was not prepared to deal with the mental health issues they created.
Though my mother would often comfort me quietly during moments of distress, our family was not one that saw tears as productive or healthy. The only thing we knew how to do was get angry, be loud, and slam doors.
Exposure to so many suicides meant I had the means to access death, and though I felt irreparable pain and grief from losing a classmate I’d known since youth, death seemed like a way out from all that — an end to the constant sufferings of hard-hitting, never-ending waves of raw feeling. It wasn’t until I started wanting to live again that I made an effort to get help. And, unsurprisingly, it took leaving Palo Alto for me to realize I wanted to live.
My parents often worried that I would overextend myself. However, they trusted that I knew my own limits, and encouraged me to pursue what I loved as long as I was maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Because our relationship was built on trust, I found it easy to talk to them when I was struggling —
I knew they’d be accepting of failure or hardship, which became really important when I was having a hard time. Toward the end of my junior year I was really struggling. I was working really hard, which was usually okay, but things had started to pile up on top of my work load: My dog died, I got the flu for two weeks, my grandmother passed away, and I lost a friend to suicide. Being in crisis mode for so long was really taking a toll on my wellbeing;
it was harder for me to keep up in school, and I wasn’t sleeping or eating as well as I used to. I often felt sad and unmotivated, and eventually I asked my parents if I could start seeing a therapist. They were overwhelmingly supportive, and helped me find a therapist who was a good match for me.
The summer after my junior year, when we experienced our second suicide cluster in five years, I attended a journalism camp at Northwestern. It was a five-week-long camp — the longest time I’d been away from home — and introduced me to a variety of friends and peers who lived different lives and were shaped by diverse experiences. The group of friends that I became closest with hadn’t grown up under the same kinds of pressures and showed me what it looked like to incorporate wellness and balance into my everyday life. We’d routinely take breaks to walk downtown for Starbucks while working, we scheduled time to go to the beach and relax, and we put off work sometimes and instead spent the night swapping stories about boys and sibling rivalries and the best Korean dramas we’d ever watched. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to go, go, go. I could just be — and that was when I felt my first taste of true freedom.
At the same time, being away from home meant that the feelings of hurt and self-criticism I’d long tried to suppress were bubbling to the surface. I spent many nights crying myself to sleep or lashing out at the people around me… When I headed back home at the end of summer, I was resolute: I needed to see a doctor. My parents, not understanding mental health, took their time warming up to the idea but tried their best to support me after I was diagnosed with depression the September of my senior year. I made appointments to see a cognitive behavioral therapist every week and began scheduling set hours every day to go to the gym.
Though I never would’ve thought this a year or two ago, I can honestly say I’m doing much better. Freed from the chains of self-hatred and expectations of perfection, I am a happier, healthier version of myself and can now share my experience to help others going through similar situations. It took a long, long time and ironically, a lot of work, but that work was worth so much more than any grade or achievement.
I found the courage to keep going. There are always good things to look forward to in life. Your next happiest day could be around the corner. No matter who you are, life is always valuable. Your life always matters. There will always be people around you who care. Be vocal, make your voice heard, and do not be afraid to get help.
Crouching on the floor of the bathroom, my stomach caving in, I lost much more than pounds or reputation. I lost my identity, my freedom, my peace of mind. I lost my creative spirit and my ability to love unconditionally. I am no longer ashamed of my diagnosis, but I cannot ever let myself believe that I am wholly my diagnosis, or that it can’t hurt me anymore. There are parts of me that stayed in the doctor’s office, in the bathroom stall, in the dark of my room. I can never get those parts back. What I can do is tell myself over and over again that, despite all of this, I am still me.
I hope for a better me. Someone who thinks less in absolutes, who is empathetic without regret, and who remembers they are loved. Being a child with a mental illness makes you older in many senses, but you are still a child. I was a child who thought, genuinely, that she was at the end of her life at the age of 17. I want to be an adult who forgets that pain, but I know I am not there yet. It exists within me, always. There is no ghost I can imagine quite like this, but I live with it, as others do. For now, I can only do so much as take my meds, do my work, and remind myself that there is a version of me, in the past, who does not yet know how happy she can be.
I am not perfect. I make mistakes. I fail and I fail again. But my depression and subsequent treatment taught me that my worth isn’t defined by how much work I do or how much better I can be — it’s defined by me as I am, right here, right now. And right here, right now, I choose to define myself by my good, as a girl who loves and loves and sees the world as brimming with infinite possibilities.
If you need to talk to somebody, America’s National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1–800–273-TALK. There are more resources on page 187.