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.

One missed paycheck from mental health crisis

A new piece in The Atlantic examines the relationship between mental health and long-term unemployment. As they point out, it is a chicken-and-egg problem- does long-term unemployment cause more mental health problems, or are long periods without work a symptoms of existing illness?

That’s a tough relationship to investigate, but it does relate to issue that people with mental illness can have- a much lower tolerance for stress and loss. Losing a job is hard for everyone, but it can trigger a serious episode for someone living day-to-day with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Even two years of constant stability have not created any kind of illusion. I am still walking on eggshells. A very stressful set of situations, a few days without access to medication, these things can be the difference between being in recovery and being in crisis.

This piece also brings up another component of mental illness- economic hardship impedes growth and recovery. It’s not just those that work losing their job. Millions living with a diagnosis are on disability or otherwise living on a fixed income. The squeeze is bringing plenty of people to the brink, but mental illness just adds a whole set of other complications.

Every stressor that exists has its own extra, sinister side. And in an America that’s in year eight of a recession with no broad recovery for the most vulnerable, the stressors are many, multiplying, and always just a few wrong turns away.

The first day of the rest of your life

Yesterday the last of my college responses came. For the last four years I’ve been in and out of junior college, dealing with a bipolar disorder that was resisting treatment. Besides that, I realized in the fall of 2009 that the prep school utopia was not for me- I couldn’t switch from pressure cooker high school to a pressure cooker college, on to a pressure cooker career. That was a road with an unhappy conclusion. But I felt ready to try to transfer.

I got into all the places I had applied. When I first applied to colleges out of high school, I visited one and bought a lovely heavy long-sleeved shirt with the name on the front. When I did not get into that particular school, it always felt a bit strange (though the shirt was lovely and I couldn’t throw it away). This year when I visited my favored place I got a hoodie and played the same game of chicken. I’m glad it’s a reminder of what could be in the future, rather than a past hope.

There’s a comforting haze when the schools have yet to respond. The paperwork for the next step of my life was filed, but the mystery keeps it all from sinking in. I’m going somewhere in September to try for a degree. The junior college limbo period has ended; I’ve picked up enough pieces now, and in the process figured out what I need and what I can live without.

The commencement speech cliche that ‘today is the first day of the rest of your life’ hits home. Of course, that’s true for every day, but only at certain points does the perspective of that quote resonate.