The fantasy of perfection: student suicide and the lies that cause it

There is a corridor of collective hysteria in this country. It is the stretch of land between the 101 and 280 freeways, starting in San Francisco and moving south, eventually ending when the latter turns into 680 and intersects with 101 due east of downtown San Jose.

For the billions of people who know nothing about northern California, I’ve marked the area for convenience.

A corridor in the San Francisco Peninsula that contains many high-pressure prep schools.
A corridor in the San Francisco Peninsula that contains many high-pressure prep schools.

This isn’t exact, but this post deals with places that are within two miles of either side.

The feature “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection” by Julie Scelfo in the New York Times is excellent. Halfway through, I was not at all surprised to learn that Kathryn DeWitt, the centerpiece of the story, is from this area.

Ms. DeWitt is younger than me, but we both lived through a different Gunn High School suicide cluster around the time we graduated. This is an excellent piece about the two clusters– which are very rare but happened twice at the same school within five years of each other. Student suicide is so commonplace that I’ve never had a conversation about California’s high speed rail project with someone my age without a detour into “will they build it so that kids won’t be able to jump in front of it?”

Student suicide is a classic social problem. It’s complex. There are a ton of institutions that may play a part. Norms are established about academic performance and image are difficult to change. If any part of the system is poisonous, it can undermine everything else. School, peers, parents, media, society, politics, money, sanity- all play a part in the problem, and all have to be addressed to create a real solution.

The prep school culture in the Bay Area isn’t unique. But it is unusually concentrated and reinforcing. It’s a high concentration of wealthy adults, often from immigrant backgrounds and low economic standing. Their kids are expected to make similar progress in their own lives. The high population means not one but many schools that mesh together to create a social scene where failure means weakness and worthlessness. Harker, Crystal Springs, Castilleja, Bellarmine, Pinewood, Woodside Priory, Sacred Heart. Then there’s all the larger Catholic schools; St. Francis, St. Ignatius, and so on. Then there’s the public schools like Aragon (where Ms. DeWitt went), Gunn, Palo Alto High. All the public schools have a substantial honors track that’s insular and indistinguishable from the private prep schools.

Anyone who’s not in the culture would find the whole apparatus absurd. It is, and you should.

William Deresiewicz, former Yale faculty and current polemicist against the narrowness of mind that selective schools of all levels create, points out that elite schools that fail their students when you look away from the resume-building:

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history. (“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League“, The New Republic, July 2014)

Suicide clusters at elite high schools and universities should not be a surprise. These institutions have taken the regular level of stigma in society and piles on. Not only is mental illness stigmatized, as it is everywhere, but a million different forms of imperfection are as well. All the contributing factors to suicidal ideation are turned into overdrive. As all three of the stories I’ve linked to concur, students think they are isolated in their unhappiness. It’s a lie that’s allowed to persist. In Scelfo’s profile, it’s the college counselor who breaks through the illusion. People are messed up. There’s a culture supposedly based on intellect and critical thinking that frequently uses neither. And people are dying because of that.

What everyone loses in a suicide

Sulome Anderson’s feature last week, “How Patient Suicide Affects Psychiatrists” is a great inversion of a big social problem. Most features on suicide and mental illness (including the great The Cost of Not Caring series by USA Today) tend to focus on the individual who committed suicide and the impact on their family and community. Anderson did quality journalism to create this feature, which helps humanize doctors who naturally become the bad guys in some of these cases.

Personally, last year someone I knew tried to end their life- I had talked to them the a few hours prior to the attempt, having a short conversation about family relations that turned out to be much more important in hindsight (they wanted to know if I had special insight on why I have a good relationship with my parents, and they had the opposite. I wasn’t helpful, though I tried to be). When I visited this person the following day, they were still attempting to die in the confines of the hospital room. Never have I seen desperation more fully realized. It’s profoundly disturbing, and the feature gets across that this sentiment crosses all lines of profession or experience. You don’t become truly adjusted to suicidal people in your life, even if you chose psychiatry as a profession.

Personally, I thought that my history of mental illness would help deal with this experience. I’ve never been particularly suicidal, but my choice to be an activist and socialize within the community has put me into contact with many people who are open about their past with suicide. Turns out that was all (I suppose) wistful thinking. It’s horrible to witness, even in the context I had, where I had some time to mentally prep.

This feature helped develop a three-dimensional picture of the tragedy, which I wish was available with all social problems. Everyone loses someone in a suicide, and we each lose a part of ourselves when someone we know personally attempts or completes it. And yes, as Anderson comes to- sometimes there is nothing that can be done. Zero suicides is an ideal to strive towards, but no free society can ever attain it.

We are all humans with flaws and we are not omnipotent. There is only so much we can do for those we love. All we can do is our best.

Saving the entire world

“whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

-Quote from the Talmud

How is humanity redeemed?

This year has brought war, genocide, disease, and conflict- religious, ethnic, between genders and sexual orientations. So grave are these social problems, it would seem that they would drag all of humankind down. Present actions and past injustice merge together and tar the seven billion people living today.

Despite the power of moral failing, there is a countering force. Our time here is justified by those that step beyond self-interest and reach out. They blow apart social barriers, help those that society would rather erase from memory.

It is typical to help a friend who is struggling with homelessness. It is transformative to do the same for a complete stranger.

It is expected that we counsel a relative in their times of crisis. It is transformative to listen to those who no relatives to hear them.

The moral universe is large, but it is sustained by tiny actions done in a concerted way. No individual can feed all the hunger, heal all the sick, bring back fathers and children from the dead. We are born into a broken world, and lacking perfection we must choose progress instead.

One life. We can all try to save one life, at some point. In doing so, all the suffering and strife is put into a new, more bearable perspective.