Stress and Teenage Suicide

We’ve lost another Northern Virginia teenager to suicide. We shouldn’t be surprised. Northern Virginia high schools have turned into the Bermuda Triangle of stress: high achieving students + high achieving parents + high achieving school system = teens who are overloaded, over-scheduled, stressed out, sleep deprived, overly focused on grades and pushed to their limits. Stress has become the norm and the damage it’s causing can’t be underestimated.

The 13 Reasons Why TV show on Netflix, based on a book of the same name by Jay Asher, has sparked controversy among mental health professionals, educators, parents and teens. Some people think the show is powerful and sparks meaningful dialogue with teens. Others feel it glamorizes suicide and has led to increased teen self-harm and suicide attempts. Blaming the show for teens increased risky behaviors seems to be missing the point. Kids who are emotionally healthy don’t hurt themselves or make suicide attempts. We’ve got a much bigger problem here than a provocative tv series.

A January article in the San Francisco Chronicle Stress is making our children ill; here is what we can do about it (2017) outlined some changes we can make as a community to improve our children’s mental health. I’ve used that as a spring board to make some suggestions on how we can combat our community’s teen mental health crisis and more effectively support our youth.

Model Desired Behavior: As adults, we need to model the type of behavior we want our children to display. That means, learning to slow down, listen, be aware and be available for our children. It also requires prioritizing and limiting our own commitments. We need to make changes ourselves first. Let’s take a hard look at ourselves. What are we teaching our kids?

Revise expectations: Unrealistic expectations for our youth have become the norm. There is a push to do more activities and do them well, leaving no room for error. Many students feel they are not allowed to make mistakes. Students feel the need to make straight As, display leadership in an extracurricular activity and make sure they get in their required community service hours, all while still seeming “well-adjusted.” Teens are often told they need to be prepared because “this won’t fly in college.” Since many students are encouraged to take the 4 core courses all four years of high school plus a foreign language (because it “looks better” on their high school transcript), there is limited electives choice. Students who commit to this path sometimes don’t have the high school experience they envisioned. They go through high school feeling stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted leaving little room for friends and a social life. Some students say that college is actually easier than high school because students have fewer classes and more time to get work done.

Limit the number of AP Classes: Schools need to rethink AP classes and put caps on how many students can take. Teachers, administrators and parents, stop pressuring kids to take all intensified or AP classes. It’s not unusual for a teen take 4 AP (college level) classes along with 3 other courses in one year; so, how is that a proper work load for a high schooler? Figure out what are reasonable expectations for teens. Teens should only take AP classes in subjects they love, excel in and want to continue to focus on in college. Mainstream classes need to be interesting and taught by good teachers. We need to have a strong curriculum for mainstream classes. Students often take AP or intensified courses because that’s where the best teachers are. Why is that?

Rethink Homework: Our current homework expectations are based on tradition as opposed to research and actual usefulness. In Alfie Kohn’s book, The Homework Myth (2007), he explains why schools continue to feel obligated to assign homework even though there is no evidence to support its efficacy. He goes on to outline evidence that homework can undermine children’s interest in learning. Research indicates there is limited utility to homework, yet somehow it gets piled onto students mistakenly thinking this is preparing them for college. Students feel loaded down with homework but aren’t explicitly taught how to study or how to manage their time. As a result, they often find themselves getting work done at the last minute, staying up late and getting stressed out. Schools and parents need to rethink the utility of homework and consider the negative impact it has on students’ mental health, physical health and love of learning.

Limit Extracurricular Activities: We need to reign in our students’ participation in extra-curricular activities; kids are incredibly over-scheduled. As parents and schools, we need to guide our children to make healthy decisions and pick and choose meaningful activities versus trying to do it all.

Make time for sleep: A National Sleep Foundation panel (2015) concluded that adolescents need 8-10 hours of sleep per night, yet nearly two-thirds of 17-year-olds report sleeping less than seven hours a night (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that secondary schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to better sync with students’ changing sleep cycles. In April, there was a national conference held in DC on Adolescent Sleep, Health and School Start Times to provide a forum for educators, researchers and child advocates to come together and discuss why healthy school start times are important to the health of adolescents and how school districts can successfully make the change. Lack of sleep significantly contributes to declined mental health, physical health and academic performance. Schools need to push back their start times. Parents, please support and prioritize a regular bedtime and help your kids get enough sleep.

Rethink our obsession with college: College preparation and the college application process have turned in to an almost obsessive focus which clouds most of high school and totally consumes senior year. My daughter was first introduced to college readiness in the 4th grade. THE 4th GRADE. We need to have an overhaul of what our schools are focusing on. Why can’t we let our kids be kids versus pressuring them about grades and what’s next? The message we’re sending the kids, even in elementary school is: be prepared; think about your future. How about we let kids be present and enjoy today? We need to live a little more in the moment and treasure each age for what it is. When it IS time to figure out what’s beyond high school, why is there only one good answer? Why isn’t it okay to take a gap year, apply to a trade school or (gasp) get a job? Is there really only one “right” college for our child? The pressure we’re putting on our youth to succeed and follow the path we’ve envision for them is stressing them out and sometimes killing them – literally. We need to rethink our take away. My daughter astutely pointed out, parent expectations drive teachers’ focus and actions. So, as parents, what do we want for our kids? I don’t know about you, but I’d like my kids to be happy, kind to others, support themselves, do something that they love and be surrounded by a supportive community. You can reach those goals many ways…and it doesn’t necessarily involve college.

Acknowledge Mental Health Crisis and openly support students: The rate of teen suicide attempts and suicides have been increasing in Virginia and nationally. Suicide is the leading cause of death for teens (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2014; Virginia Department of Health, 2015). In 2013, 30% of high school students reported symptoms of depression in the past year (Centers for Disease and Control & Prevention, 2014). Fairfax county’s annual youth survey found more than a third of Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) students, including nearly half of all high school seniors, reported experiencing a high level of stress within the past month (2016). Schools need to acknowledge the level of stress students are experiencing and provide support for it – there is a high instance of teens with eating disorders, anxiety, and depression, but it’s not discussed in school. We need to allow mental health professionals to come into our schools and give them time and resources to support our students.

We need to:

  • Figure out what factors promote and impede teen wellness
  • Talk with teachers – find out what THEY think would help alleviate stress for themselves and their students and create a healthier school community.
  • Talk to students to find out what THEY think. How can we make our homes and our schools a more healthy and less stressful places to be. What do THEY think is important. What would THEY like to see different in their home and school communities.

Parents, please – slow down, treasure your children and yourselves and figure out what’s really important and let the rest go. Petula Dvorak wrote a recent article in The Washington Post on teen suicide. She ended it by emphasizing the importance of hope as a protection against suicide. Hope that next year will be better; that it will be better when they go to college; when they get a job; grow up. I would say something different. How about we work on changing TODAY. How about we focus on making our kids elementary, middle and high school years more enjoyable and less stressful. Our community needs to step up and take action. Because for some of them, there won’t be a tomorrow if we don’t change today.