Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Suicidal Overachievers

Reading Frank Bruni’s latest column you would think that American college students are chronic overachievers who have been overworked to the point of becoming suicidally depressed.

And you would think that they are suffering because they were brought up by Tiger Moms, not by Koala Dads.

Bruni describes the scene in Stanford, CA, not only home to the most prestigious and selective university in America, but to high schools where achievement has become an obsession:

I HAD heard about all of the dying, about all of the grief, and still I didn’t immediately understand what I was seeing when, at a railroad crossing here, I spotted a man in a blaring orange vest, the kind that road crews and public-safety workers wear. He wasn’t carrying any equipment. He wasn’t engaged in any obvious activity. He shuffled his feet, staring into the distance.

Hours later, at the same crossing: an orange-vested woman. Like the man, she just stood there, without evident purpose.

“They’re on the lookout,” a friend of mine who lives here explained.

“For what?” I asked.

“Suicides,” my friend said.

Between May 2009 and January 2010, five Palo Alto teenagers ended their lives by stepping in front of trains. And since October of last year, another three Palo Alto teenagers have killed themselves that way, prompting longer hours by more sentries along the tracks. The Palo Alto Weekly refers to the deaths as a “suicide contagion.”

He continues:

… the contagion has prompted an emotional debate about the kinds of pressures felt by high school students in epicenters of overachievement.

True enough, a small cohort of American high school and college students is obsessed with overachievement. And yet, compared to their peers around the world, these same students are seriously underachieving.

A recent Washington Post story about the achievement levels of the millennial generation suggested that they lagged their peers in all measures of achievement. Even when they compared America’s best with the best in other countries, our best were not very good at all.

Of course, you can be obsessed with overachieving and still underachieve. It depends on how you go about it, whether you have developed good study habits and whether you have good character.

If you are not taught good character—the basis for Tiger Momming—your exertions will feel like stress and strain.

Bruni offers a number of possible explanations:

These are to some extent problems of affluence and privilege. But they have relevance beyond any one subset of our country’s populace. They reflect a status consciousness that bedevils Americans at all income levels, and they underscore an economic trepidation that is sadly widespread and is seemingly intensified by the gaping divide between the haves and have-nots.

The suicide rate among all teenagers has seemingly risen a bit over the last decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was 8.15 per every 100,000 Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2013, the last year for which complete data is available; the rate was 6.74 in 2003.

Many more children think about taking their own lives. According to a 2013 survey by the C.D.C., 17 percent of American high school students had considered suicide in the previous year. Eight percent said they’d attempted it.

And suicide clusters have at least as much to do with imitation as with environment, each instance of self-annihilation planting an idea and heightening the possibility of the next.

All human societies are status hierarchies. Blaming it on status consciousness feels less than plausible.

Bruni’s argument about the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots is more cogent. In a time when the middle class is rapidly contracting, there is more pressure to belong to the haves. If you are not overprivileged you risk ending up in the lower middle class.

And then there’s the imitation factor. Bruni is also correct to note this, but he should have added the influence of the media. Epidemiological studies have suggested that excessive media coverage of emotional problems, like suicidal depression and anorexia encourages students to develop symptoms.

In his book Crazy Like Us Ethan Watters reported that a child in distress may look to the media to discover which set of symptoms the medical profession (and perhaps also parents) will take most seriously. By developing socially recognized symptoms a child is more likely to be taken seriously and less likely to be dismissed as a hormonal adolescent.

Bruni, however, seems to side with those who want to blame the suicides on bad parenting coupled with white privilege and Tiger Mommery:

Are kids here getting to be kids? Does a brand of hovering, exactingly prescriptive parenting put them in unforgiving boxes and prevent them from finding their true selves and true grit?

Since when did schools become therapy mills? Going to school to get an education is not the same as learning how to find one’s true self. As David Hume famously discovered, when he went looking for his true Self he could not find it.

True grit or perseverance represents an important personal virtue. One agrees with Bruni that a child needs to learn how to fail, without being hectored constantly by anxious parents.

One might add that overbearing and anxious parents are very likely to communicate their anxiety to their children. Isn’t anxiety contagious?

Beside, being a Tiger Mom is not at all the same as being a helicopter parent. The Tiger Mom follows a program involving strict discipline and strict rules. She did try to protect her children from noxious influences but she was not involved in every aspect of their lives. She was, after all, a law professor, and that is a full time job.

One must wonder how it happened that today’s modern women, having both careers and families can have the time or the energy to helicopter-parent their children?

One writer, quoted by Bruni, blames it on parents who are:

… not only overprotective but overbearing, micromanaging the lives of children, pointing them toward specific mile markers of achievement and denying them any time to flail or room to fail. They wind up simultaneously frazzled and fragile.

Surely, the Tiger Mom allowed her children to fail. She did not indulge the modern rage for high self-esteem. Effectively, that was her greatest virtue.

Bruni offers the chilling testimony of a high school student:

Here is what Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, recently wrote: “As I sit in my room staring at the list of colleges I’ve resolved to try to get into, trying to determine my odds of getting into each, I can’t help but feel desolate.”

She confessed to panic attacks in class, to menstrual periods missed as a result of exhaustion. “We are not teenagers,” she added. “We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning.”

If American children were competing effectively on the world stage, it would be one thing. The problem is: they aren’t.

However much their parents urge these students to compete, the culture, in its many manifestations does NOT promote competition and competitive striving. It promotes flourishing or flowering, terms that do not cover the virtues of competition.

When Tom Brady was playing in the last Super Bowl, would you say that he was flourishing? When Eisenhower was commanding his troops on D-Day, would you say that he was flourishing?

Overworked students in places like Stanford, CA are living in stark discord with the culture at large. If you are an overachiever living in a culture that does not value it, you will feel that you are not part of the culture and are on the road to becoming a permanent outcast.

How does it feel to be overachieving in a culture that does not allow you to feel pride in your achievement, that dismisses your success as a function of privilege and that tells you to feel guilty for what you have achieved?

Children might excel in STEM subjects, but courses in literature and social science-- to say nothing of the ambient culture-- severely devalue earned achievement and exhort them to feel guilty about being more privileged than others.

As I argued in The Last Psychoanalyst, the opposite of depression is pride. How much pride do children have in their own or their parents’ achievements when they are taught that their success is a symptom of social injustice?

And how much pride can they have in their achievements when they are taught that they should not have pride in their country, that the nation has been built on a foundation of racism and sexism and other assorted sins?

Under the circumstances their achievements will provoke guilt as much as pride. The harder they work, the better they will do, the more they will feel guilty for being part of a criminal class that owes its success to privilege, not to hard work.


Kaiser Derden (aka TDL) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kaiser Derden (aka TDL) said...

mix the entitlement mentality and a lack of a real world work ethic with parents who don't understand the roots of their own success so they grasp at things like "the right college" and you get children who think they deserve things they have not worked for and are failure if they don't meet their parents goals ... of course they want to kill themselves ...

Darwin anticipated this ...

drtceline@gmail.com said...

As I always expect, you have keen observations on yet another obsession in our culture that determines if a child has worth or will be able to flourish based only on academic performance. Crazy!

Ares Olympus said...

I'm not in a position to judge suicides or pressures of modern youth. I do wonder of the "always-on" nature of social media and making for a "hyper-hierarchy" where there's no escape from being on the bottom, except for kids smart enough to disconnect and do their own thing.

re: As I argued in The Last Psychoanalyst, the opposite of depression is pride. How much pride do children have in their own or their parents’ achievements when they are taught that their success is a symptom of social injustice?

Pride vs depression? That seems like a rather depressing choice. Isn't pride one of the 7 deadly sins?! But of course that's the problem with words, they all mean many things, and include good and bad qualities.

I remember reading the Poet Robert Bly connected the Viet Nam war to a loss of trust and respect for older men, when there was clear evidence of betrayal. Or I should say there was two betrayals, first the leaders of the war, and then the contempt of the American public towards veterans who returned.

But of course this might show the purpose of pride. If your choice is depression or pride when people spit on you, pride might seem the better bet.

On the other hand, I rather wonder if depression and prides are "opposite", that they exist together, so the expression of pride can suppress awareness of depression, but how do to make pride more than propaganda?

Of course the answer is pride has to be based on deed not word. Saying the right things don't matter if you can't live the values you express.

So if you're depressed, and don't want to get out of bed when your alarm clock rings, but you do, you can feel pride. And if you make your bed as well, so you don't try to crawl back in, you can feel further pride. And so on.

I can see that. And if you can do those small steps, you probably will not be vulerable to suicide.

Ares Olympus said...

re: How does it feel to be overachieving in a culture that does not allow you to feel pride in your achievement, that dismisses your success as a function of privilege and that tells you to feel guilty for what you have achieved?

I can relate to this although not in regards to school achievement, even when I liked what I was learning.

But like I set a goal to be debt free and paid off my 30 year mortgage in a bit under 10 years, and I feel pride in that, but it is hard to visibly celebrate when other people are financially struggling, or worse over their head in credit card debt.

On the opposite side, I think of my 30-something cousin who just got married, and has taken at least 6 jet vacations in the last 18 months while I've only taken 3 jet trips in my life.

So I'm not jealous, but I do wonder about conspicuous consumption, like don't these people have any awareness that others may not be able to afford such extravagance?

Who are they trying to impress with their Facebook vacation pictures?

Of course, when is it ever okay to flaunt the success of your overachieving nature, whether your aspiration is to live debt free, or take week long vacations every 3 months?

When and how does "setting an example" of what success looks like become a virtue to emulate?

Yes, I feel guilty, and it seems like the correct feeling. It probably means a portion of my success was due to undue privilege and I owe something in return.

Maybe my purpose in life is to be a source of income to the vacation industry in Hawaii, the Caribbean and Mexico? But I don't quite believe that.

So I'll have to see what else I can do with success I've found from my privilege and devotion.

I'd believe in the positive value of pride, if only I didn't see how badly it can also be abused, how it can be used to hide less attactive truths and avoid necessary action.

But some truths are too big, too impersonal and apparently don't much help motivate.

I doubt the phase "Children are starving in China" really helped kids find pride in cleaning their plates.

And I doubt pointing out signs American youth as underachievers, will help reduce the suicide rate.

David Foster said...

I'm no psychologist, but I don't think people usually commit suicide because of difficulties, even extreme difficulties. I think they commit suicide because of a sense of meaninglessness. I believe Durkheim agreed.

To many kids, the educational system probably comes across as a noisy, chaotic, high-pressure mass production plant that produces...nothing. You are going through ritualistic steps not because you believe in them or anyone else really believes in them, but only because that is The System. And you see no end to it, because the image you have been given is that the adult world is just the same, only worse.

Larry Sheldon said...

I used to ride trains on that line every day.

Always especially hated the first of a series of suicides because we knew there would be copy cats.

Some times I'd go back to driving to work because I couldn't stand the (almost seemed like) daily occurrences.

I often wondered if there would be a benefit to showing a film reporting effects of a suicide on the crew and passengers--especially on the trains going towards San Francisco.

Dennis said...

I think David Foster has actually come up with the best explanation I have seen lately. This would be especially true for boys.
It has to be one of the most tedious experiences I can remember. When is the last time anyone felt the thrill of learning in an educational institution? Where is the thrill of exploration?
There was a bright spot in higher education, but even that has been dumbed down and propagandized. probably why we graduate so many people unready to face the challenges of the real world.
I would wonder whether the term "suicidal achievers" should not actually be being forced to be "suicidal underachievers?" Underachievement starts at the top which can be attested to by our constant downhill slide in comparison with other countries.
Nothing is more exciting than a challenged mind and that is not happening. One of the thrills of life should be learning and that thrill should be a part of one's existence throughout life.

David Foster said...

Several years ago, I was at an event for prospective new students at a well-known university. Virtually all the questions asked were asked by the parents. The kids were mostly sitting there slumped over.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

The picture of children slumped over is seriously depressing.

Thanks to David for bring up Durkheim. In his book on Suicide, Durkheim identified three kinds of suicide: egotistical, atruistic and anomic. The sense of meaninglessness, which is covered by the third usually seems to involve social dislocation.

Copy cat suicides are certainly a big problem... one that I do not have a cure for. Perhaps the image of what happens would have an effect on those who think they are doing the world a favor. But, it seems also to be the case that media coverage provokes and encourages imitators.

Dennis said...


I would like to see a breakdown of just what percentage of these suicides are boys compared to girls.