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Is Suicide the Price for Student Achievement?

So much has already been written about the importance of a college degree today that it seems nothing new can be said. Yet I wonder if we have given sufficient thought to the ultimate effect this obsession has on young people.  I'm referring specifically to suicide ("The Silicon Valley Suicides," The Atlantic, Dec.).

I realize it's risky to extrapolate the experience of two high schools in the same school district in the Silicon Valley to an entire nation, but I believe there are certain lessons that are applicable. The 10-year suicide rate for Henry M. Gunn High School and Palo Alto High School is between four and five times the national average.  That's a shocking finding.  It's all the more so because the students come from some of the most privileged backgrounds in the United States. 

But as in other highly affluent communities, high socioeconomic status offers no immunity from anxiety, depression, and other psychological ills.  In fact, studies have found higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average in these students than in poor students.  Moreover, anxiety and depression or delinquent behaviors are two to three times higher than the national average.

The question is why.  "Pressure to excel at multiple academic and extracurricular pursuits" and the feeling of isolation from parents are largely responsible.  The adolescent years are a fertile time for the full impact of these factors to be felt. But what is different today is the degree.  I don't remember my peers feeling the same way.  There was competition, but it was never regarded as a matter of life and death.  Apparently, it literally is for students in the two high schools.

If students believe that their entire worth is dependent solely on the grades they receive and the college they are accepted to, then it follows they are going to feel devastated when they fall short in these categories. That's why I think the message young people need to hear and absorb is that doing their very best is good enough.  Finding gratifying work and leading a happy life are possible without being No. 1 in everything. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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