In February 2015, I visited colleagues living in Palo Alto, CA who shared some disturbing news with me. There had been a recent flurry of suicides among high school students attending the local school. In attempting to research the facts, statistics, gender, and history of recent and previous teen suicides in Palo Alto, particularly in comparison to other affluent, well educated communities, we were unable to locate any substantial data. It seemed bizarre that such a resourceful, peaceful, and protected town contained high risk factors for adolescent suicides.
I visited the tracks on which the children had ended their lives, and watched the lone guard at the crossroad, who had been placed there to prevent further loss. I asked my colleagues if other preventative measures were being taken, for one guard at one location on endless tracks was surely not going to contain the risk. They shared that the parents were having meetings about what was happening and why. But the schools had not yet moved into public action in terms of understanding and prevention.
Finally, in April 2015, the NY Times caught on, and published two very important pieces on the suicides in Palo Alto. The articles verified that a cluster of adolescents had recently ended their lives individually – all of whom had attended the local high school. Further investigations revealed that there had been a history of teen suicides in the community. In digging deeper through interviews, the articles identified risk factors of high academic pressure, intense expectations of attending top-notch colleges (particularly Stanford), immersion in high achievement oriented families and social groups, and elevated expectations of performance and success in multiple domains. Welcome to Palo Alto from a teen’s perspective, as poignantly described by a Palo Alto student in an interview published in the Almanac News in March 2015.
A significant question raised in all articles is why parents, schools, and society are pressuring children to such an extent? This is a critical question, as living in a society that clearly espouses success, wealth, and achievement, and with Palo Alto being a powerful hub of all three characteristics, one begins to wonder what price our children are paying to meet these expectations? Are children really thriving when their primary focus is achievement and performance? Is it healthy for us to be pushing our children to measure themselves primarily through wealth and educational status? Shouldn’t we also be being paying close attention to and encouraging multiple forms of development, such as play, creativity, social relationships, giving to others, family time, and rest and recreation?
I believe that the above characteristics and behaviors are supremely important in child and adolescent development to foster thriving, well-balanced, and happy human beings. In today’s climate, parents and schools need to be mindful of whole child development, emotional happiness, and balanced life-styles, in addition to academic achievement. It is essential that we simultaneously emphasize these cornerstones of health so that our children can continue to be children, in all aspects of the word. Lythcott-Hains, the Dean of Stanford from 2002-2012, has published a timely and informative new book, How To Raise An Adult, which explores the drawbacks of excessive expectations and overachievement for children. An excellent movie that also goes into depth regarding the pros and cons of academic pressure and rigor, the need for children to engage in balanced socio-emotional development, and the high price children and college students may be paying for achievement and success – including suicide – is The Race To Nowhere. This movie is now well shown in schools across the country. I strongly recommend that all of us as parents, educators, and clinicians review these resources and reflect on their powerful messages.