Last month, Julie Scelfo published an article called Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection for the New York Times education section. For those of us with teenagers who plan to go away to college, it’s scary enough letting your teen out into the world. Hearing about the recent increase of college suicides is even scarier. In the past 13 months, there were 6 suicides at the University of Pennsylvania and 4 at Tulane University. Upon hearing this, I immediately wanted to know the risk factors and prevention strategies. I was drawn to this article especially because it focused on one student, Kathryn Dewitt, who came close to committing suicide but was rescued and is now doing well.
The main focus of the article is the stress students experience due to parent expectations, their own expectations, and the feelings of incompetence from seeing other students effortlessly excel. First it is important to recognize that teens who do not attend college are at a statistically higher risk for suicide than those who attend college. However, there are several risk factors specific to college. While depression and suicide are caused by a multitude of factors, parents can still do a lot to ease the stress load. For example, for many students, college is more difficult than high school and it may be more difficult to achieve high grades. Most students who have chosen to attend college want to be successful, so if they are struggling, they would benefit from help rather than criticism. Most colleges have much in place to help struggling students, including free tutoring, mentors, and counselors. In addition, instructors have office hours specifically to help students. If your student is not taking advantage of these opportunities, you can urge him or her to do so. You as a parent do not need to stress over grades. Your teen is now officially an adult and needs to handle it.
Other stresses in college may be overloading with sports, activities, or jobs, or difficulty adjusting to campus life. According to Scelfo, many college students have perfected the look of walking around with the air that everything is terrific, but this is rarely the case. In addition, social media often shows friends looking happy and successful. “These cultural dynamics of perfectionism and overindulgence have now combined to create adolescents who are ultra-focused on success, but don’t know how to fail.” Actually, everyone has some weaknesses and self doubts, and everyone fails sometimes. Many of today’s successful CEO’s have failed businesses in their past. The key is to be resilient and learn from mistakes. You as a parent can most benefit your young adult by being available to talk and listen, and stressing that you do not expect them to be perfect.
In addition to having parents available, it is important for students to have a support system at college – a network of friends and possibly an adult who they trust. People with support systems are usually happier and more resilient than those without. College students also need to support their friends. If they notice a friend or acquaintance who seems very depressed, isolates himself, or talks of suicide, they should tell an adult who can intervene.
High school suicides are also notable, although they have decreased since their peak in the 1980’s. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) There were 13 suicides in Fairfax County in 2013. According to one student’s farewell note, “There is too much stress in my life from school and the environment it creates, expectations for sports, expectations from my friends and expectations from my family …Goodbye.” (Washington Post 11/17/14) Many teens, especially in the high pressured and competitive Washington, DC area, are overloaded with honors and AP courses in addition to sports and other commitments, leaving little down time and sleep time. High school students also stress over social drama and social media drama. It is important to talk to your teen about his or her mental health. Find out if your child has too much stress and where it comes from. Then you can work together to make adjustments, and see a professional if warranted.
Overachiever or not, stress is part of life and comes from many places. All of us need to make the adjustments we need to relieve stress and enjoy life. For teenagers, signs of stress and thoughts of suicide are not always evident. As parents, we can maintain an open dialog with our children and ask them if everything is OK. We only want them to lead happy and productive lives. They do not need to be over-achievers.