Campus Suicide: A Mother Responds
The most shared, most read story on the New York Times earlier this week was called “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection.” (It will appear this Sunday’s print edition). As the stepmother of a young man who jumped to his death from his campus apartment at an elite university during final exam week, I read it with particular interest. Prior to the night he died, everyone considered my stepson a happy, successful and popular student with a bright future.
In fact, he was not unlike the capable and talented students profiled in the article, which chronicles a series of suicides on college campuses and references the devastating suicide cluster in high-pressure Palo Alto, California. The story is heartbreaking. Young people, with seemingly everything to live for, choosing to end their own lives.
And though I nodded my head in recognition as I read parts of the article, the central premise of the piece did not sit well with me.
According to the writer, the increase in suicides at top colleges can be traced back to evolving cultural and familial expectations that students have internalized as a need to be perfect — to appear happy, relaxed, busy, and achieve straight A’s.
The article condemns a culture in which “helicopter parents” have become “lawnmower parents,” who mow down obstacles that might get in the way of their teenaged children’s success.
When my stepson died, people who didn’t know him assumed– given his university’s reputation for being an academic pressure cooker — that his suicide was a response to the stress of exams or poor grades. They blamed him for not being able to hack the pressure. They blamed his parents for having too-high expectations of him. None of this was true. In some ways, I wished it were. It would have given us an easy answer to the question, “Why?”
And that’s my gripe with the Times article. Suicide is complicated. Before it touched my family, I never would have considered it within the realm of possibility. And once it happened, I noticed that people — well meaning people — started looking at me differently, asking me questions, trying to discern the ways we were different, the things that set my family apart from theirs. They were searching for signs that we were different; that what had happened in my family couldn’t happen in theirs.
It’s natural to want to protect ourselves, to feel we are somehow immune to the tragedies that touch others. I suspect the popularity of the Times article has something to do with that — by reading what happened and recognizing how we are not that kind of parent or how our kid is not that kind of kid, we can relax.
But the truth is, my family probably isn’t that different from your family. Our kids do well in school, but no one takes special lessons or outside coaching to improve their performance. We take an interest in our kids’ studies, but we don’t help them with their schoolwork or complain to their teachers if they get a bad grade. We eat dinner together at home most nights. We encourage our kids to be comfortable with themselves, even if they don’t exactly fit in with the in-crowd. We read, watch TV, play board games and video games, take family vacations — often with relatives — to regular places where our kids can be independent and explore on their own. We love each other and we annoy each other. We go to work and we come home.
Designating eager-to-please high-achieving students and their lawnmower parents as the culprits in suicide oversimplifies the issue. It creates a false sense of security among those who don’t fit the profile. The truth is — especially among young people trying to sort out who they are and who they want to be as they emerge from the cocoon of adolescence into the unsteady wings of young adulthood, there are many ways to trip up, mess up, feel angry, spiteful, loser-ish, ashamed, alone and hopeless.
No, not every young person who experiences those negative feelings takes the next step, but many fantasize about it. And too many do take their own lives. While only some kids will be at risk, it’s hard to predict exactly which kids they will be. To make matters worse, suicide is contagious. When one young person dies by suicide in a community, it makes the likelihood of another suicide that much greater.
Until we admit that suicide can happen to anyone — even our own kids — we won’t be engaging in serious conversation about what really matters: about depression, about mental illness, and about training all kids to develop resilience, coping skills, and the ability to ride out the often uncomfortable waves of emotions that come with adult life.