In a two-part series, the Deseret News has detailed the tragic phenomenon of teenage suicide in both the rural west as well as some of America’s most affluent high schools, including in places like Palo Alto, California and the Beehive State's very own Alpine, Utah.
It is generally understood that teens in poverty are at a heightened risk for mental health issues. Yet, according to noted psychology professor Suniya Luthar, very few parents realize that adolescents at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum are also increasingly vulnerable to depression and anxiety caused by the pressure to achieve.
Parents in all settings should understand how environmental pressure can affect teenage mental health — whether it’s in the home, on the athletic field or in the classroom.
To find the solutions to these problems experts advise parents to first look in the mirror.
Mothers and fathers may tell their children not to stress out about getting a perfect score on a standardized test, but then they turn around and seethe about being passed over for a prestigious promotion at work. In short, actions convey more than words.
One piece of professional advice is to help children understand that failure is a critical part of longterm success and learning. “Oftentimes kids feel like they’re alone, that they’re the only ones experiencing this,” said Gordon Flett, a professor of psychiatry at York University in Toronto. “Talk to your kids about times you’ve made a mistake and felt ashamed and embarrassed. Talk to them about how famous people struggled before achieving something. If kids are feeling anxious or depressed, that’s pretty normal. It’s helpful to realize it’s not them, it’s the challenges and pressures of this time of life, and they’ll be just fine.”
The pressure to achieve, experts say, is not a direct cause of teenage suicide. Yet, it can lead to heightened levels of anxiety and depression, which in turn may amplify the risks. Teen suicide, they emphasize, is almost always linked to underlying mental health problems. Yet, those who work with teens must not dismiss signs of pressure-induced depression.
A parent's influence can go a long way to helping assuage symptoms. And yet, if parental expressions of love are offered only after a child achieves a high score or wins an award, for example, then love can feel conditioned on peak performance. Suddenly, when a child does not perform, their anxiety spikes. Parents that untether praise from visible achievements have seen success.
That’s not to say that parents should avoid celebrating wins or encouraging advancement.
In fact, the opposite is true.
Engagement at home is essential for adolescent mental health. But parents, coaches and teachers may consider praising youth not just for their more visible triumphs, but also for their character traits, personalities or their pro-social actions that aren't always as noticed as more traditional markers of adolescent achievement.
Researchers note that social bonds, family togetherness and religious involvement are among the strongest antidotes to teenage depression and suicide. It is all the more important, then, that these arenas remain refuges for teens and don't themselves become sources of anxiety.
Young people from all walks of life deserve the best opportunities for a healthy and productive adolescence. Although a sense of achievement is an important element of life satisfaction, when pressure boils over and begins to affect mental well-being, it's incumbent upon parents and schools to rectify what can quickly become a tragic blight on some of America’s most financially advantaged communities.