Stresssssss

. During the lunch period, Skylar Relova, 15, left, and Bailey Smith, 14, both San Ramon Valley High students from Danville, visit with Max, a Shih Tzu mix therapy dog, in the school quad in Danville, Calif., on Monday, March 14, 2015. San Ramon Valley High\'s PTSA is hosting a \"Low Stress Week\" March 14-18 with therapy dogs and a hot breakfast served to students. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)
Skylar Relova, 15, left, and Bailey Smith, 14, meet Max, a therapy dog, in the San Ramon Valley High quad during the lunch period. Photo: Susan Tripp Pollard, Bay Area News Group

Student stress is worrying educators at top-performing Silicon Valley schools, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News. “They’re pushing back school start times, re-examining homework loads, coordinating tests and warning parents about buying into college myths.”

Two suicide clusters in Palo Alto have raised fears. Around the Bay Area, there are more reports of panic attacks and eating disorders, students cutting themselves, suicide attempts and other mental-health issues.

In a recent two-week period at Irvington High in Fremont, mental health authorities or parents were summoned because nine students were suffering so much distress they needed to be involuntarily confined for protection, assistant principal Jay Jackson said.

A (St. Louis University) survey last spring found 54 percent of Irvington students suffering from depression and 80 percent showing moderate to severe anxiety levels.

Students think their life is over if they don’t get into a “great college,” say counselors.

“The better you are, the better the college you get into, and the better your life will be,” said Ella Milliken, a sophomore at Los Altos High.

Palo Alto schools have “added counselors and trained staff to spot troubled students,” reports Noguchi.

Dr. Grace Liu, a psychiatry resident, plays the part of an embarrassed teen with Dr. Rona Hu, psychiatry, playing the role of Liu's mother, during a skit at Jane Lathrop Middle School in Palo Alto. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Bay Area News Group

Psychiatrists Grace Liu and Rona Hu play a teen and her mother in a skit at a parenting forum at a Palo Alto middle school. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Bay Area News Group

San Ramon Valley High “staged a low-stress week” with hot breakfasts of quiche and oatmeal, supplied by parent volunteers, and therapy dogs at lunchtime. “Relaxing music wafted over the quad, where students did yoga” and “email was banned for a day.”

Four of the last nine Palo Alto teens to kill themselves were Asian and Asian youths have killed themselves in San Jose, Fremont and Contra Costa County in recent years. Palo Alto school and community leaders have started conversations on “parenting, expectations and a traditionally taboo topic — mental illness,” with Asian parents, Noguchi writes.

However, plans to ease pressure are controversial. Saratoga High considered limiting AP classes, but students and parents rejected the idea.

. . . a proposal to push back Saratoga High’s start time by nearly an hour, to 8:40 a.m., ran into furious opposition, especially from Asian parents. The idea was to coordinate times with the district’s other school, Los Gatos High, and to give students a chance to get more sleep — a benefit that some researchers tout as the single most effective tool to improve student health.

The plan, the product of monthslong research by a 28-member committee, was enthusiastically backed by many teachers and counselors, alarmed at rising stress disorders they see among students.

But the proposals were never publicly debated. And the committee itself, while intended to be broad-based, lacked Asian-American parents — even though Saratoga High is about three-fifths Asian. Criticism spread by social media saw the plan as an attack on academic rigor, in part by shaving five minutes from each class period.

Test scores are higher at Saratoga than Los Gatos, said parent Becky Wu. “Why ask Saratoga to match Los Gatos’ and not the other way around?”

Saratoga will compromise on a 8:15 a.m. start time.

The all-powerful U.S. News rankings reward colleges for selectivity, writes Alia Wong in The Atlantic. Mid-level colleges recruit students — including those they have no intention of admitting — to push up their rejection stats.

Is social media fueling teen suicide?


Credit: Victor Kerlow

Parents blame stress for the suicides of two 17-year-old girls in Plano, Texas. Two boys at New York City’s Fordham Prep jumped in front of trains a few weeks apart. The youth suicide rate has been rising since 2007, reports the Centers for Disease Control.

Social media may be fueling teen suicide by encouraging young people to become “disconnected from the reality of their own existences,” writes Dr. Keith Ablow.

Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and the like have made them think of themselves as mini-reality-TV versions of themselves. Too many of them see their lives as a series of flickering photos or quick videos. They need constant doses of admiration and constant confirmation of their tenuous existence, which come in the form of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets.”

Heroin use is spreading, writes Ablow. “Heroin is just the powdered equivalent of text messaging, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the technology drugs Americans— especially American teen— are mainlining every single day.”

Young people are “increasingly fascinated with dramas about vampires and zombies,” he adds. “They know something about the walking dead.”

CDC to study teen suicide ‘epidemic’

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will conduct an  epidemiological study of teen suicides in affluent Palo Alto, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News.  Four high school students took their own lives in 2014 and 2015 and six killed themselves in 2009 and 2010. Most stepped in front of a train.

Hanna Rosin write about the “Silicon Valley suicides” in the December Atlantic.

Suicide prevention signs are posted by Palo Alto train tracks. Photo: Dai Sugano, San Jose Mercury News

Suicide prevention signs are posted by Palo Alto train tracks. Photo: Dai Sugano, San Jose Mercury News

In response to the suicides and concern about student stress, Palo Alto “schools are starting later so that students can get more sleep,” writes Noguchi. “Gunn High School students created a student support group. New fencing rims the Caltrain tracks. The school district and city have offered sessions on parenting and mental health issues. And counseling services have been expanded.”

The CDC conducted an “Epi-Aid” assessment last year in Fairfax County, Virginia, where “85 youths and young adults ages 10 through 24 killed themselves from September 2010 through October 2014,” she reports.

The CDC’s Fairfax study listed a variety of risk factors, including “parents’ pressure for success, parental denial of children’s mental health issues, high counselor-to-student ratios at school, the occasional cruelty of social media and the stigma of mental illness,” writes Noguchi. Media coverage of suicides may have encouraged suicidal behavior.

Asians: Stress is OK, focus on academics

A high-achieving New Jersey school district needs to ease pressure on students and focus more on “social-emotional development,” West Windsor-Plainsboro Superintendent David Aderhold argued in a letter to parents.

“The perpetual achievement machine continues to demand higher scores and greater success each passing year,” he wrote. “The grade has become the end point, not the learning.”

The changes have revealed a divide between white parents, who welcome the changes, and Asian parents, who think achievement should come first, reports the New York Times.

Educated immigrants from China, India and Korea have flooded into the district, which is near Princeton: 65 percent of students are Asian-American, compared with 44 percent in 2007.

At follow-up meetings, Aderhold talked about two clusters of suicides in the last six years in high-achieving Palo Alto (California) schools. Many blame stress. (Most of the suicides were Chinese-American or had one Asian parent.)

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner in the district, told a crowd at the board meeting that reforms by Dr. Aderhold were holding her children back. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner, spoke against the district’s new approach. Credit: Mark Makela/New York Times

Catherine Foley, a former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at her daughter’s middle school, backs the changes. “My son was in fourth grade and told me, ‘I’m not going to amount to anything because I have nothing to put on my résumé,’ ” she said.

Another parent, Mike Jia, condemned “dumbing down” his children’s education. “What is happening here reflects a national anti-intellectual trend that will not prepare our children for the future,” he said.

The changes include “no-homework nights, an end to high school midterms and finals, and a ‘right to squeak’ initiative that made it easier to participate in the music program,” reports the Times.

 Asian-American parents are enthusiastic supporters of the competitive instrumental music program. They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program, which once began in the fourth grade but will now start in the sixth. The change to the program, in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American, is one of Dr. Aderhold’s reforms.

Asian-American students have been avid participants in a state program that permits them to take summer classes off campus for high school credit, allowing them to maximize the number of honors and Advanced Placement classes they can take, another practice that Dr. Aderhold is limiting this school year.

 At a meeting, white parents sat on one side, while Asian parents sat on the other.

This has been an issue where I live, in Silicon Valley, for years. Asian immigrant parents put heavy pressure on their kids to earn high grades. (It’s not the schools. It’s the parents.) Some white parents worry their kids can’t compete — or will go nuts trying. The pressure to get into an elite college means all the A students feel they’re in competition with each other.

My daughter, a Palo Alto High graduate, was talking about the suicides, which were after her time, with a classmate. “Paly taught me that I didn’t always have to be the best,” she said.

“But we were the best,” he replied.

Teen suicide in Silicon Valley: Why?

I raised my daughter in Palo Alto. The public schools educated the children of high-tech engineers, entrepreneurs and Stanford professors. It was competitive — but also fun to put out the newspaper or compete in Mock Trial with so many smart kids.

In The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools, Hanna Rosin tries to understand a series of suicides in 2009-10 and again in 2014-15.

Most of the kids who killed themselves stepped in front of a train.

For the most part, these students were doing well in school, had plenty of friends, seemed to be normal teens with normal parents. One girl had just gotten into the college of her dreams. A boy had just tried out for varsity basketball.

Adolescent dysfunction has a U-shaped curve, writes Rosin. Wealthy teens are doing as badly as poor teens, researchers say.

The rich middle- and high-school kids (Suniya) Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average.

Successful parents set high expectations for their children. High school students believe there’s one path to success — get into a “good” college — and little room for mistakes.

Many of the Palo Alto suicides were Chinese-American or had some Asian ancestry, writes Rosin. Was it Tiger Moms and Dads?

In addition to pressure to excel, “affluent kids felt remarkably isolated from their parents,” Luthar found. They got lots of parental attention — all that helicoptering — but didn’t feel close.

In the end, nothing really seems to explain why these adolescents ended their lives, concludes Rosin.

Nationwide, the adolescent suicide rate has “dropped dramatically since the 1990s,” perhaps because of better anti-depressants and suicide-prevention campaigns, she writes. But, in the past few years, teen suicide is on the rise again.

Schools monitor students’ social media use

Concerned about cyber-bullying, suicidal students and threats of violence, more schools are monitoring their students’ use of social media, reports Skipease.  

In Orange County, Florida, the school district is paying Snaptrends, a social media monitoring tool used by numerous police departments, to monitor the online activities of students and staff.

In the first few weeks, the monitoring alerted school officials to a student’s suicidal posts and several other issues, said Doug Tripp, senior director of safety and security for Orange County Public Schools. The software will track messages that show an “unhappy, sad or depressed” emotional state.

Posts are public, so it’s not a privacy issues, says Tripp.

It sounds creepy, but . . . Is there a “but?”

Performance-based parenting

The children of the meritocracy are bathed in conditional love, writes David Brooks in the New York Times.

 Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement.

. . . Children in such families come to feel that childhood is a performance — on the athletic field, in school and beyond. They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn.

. . . These parents unconsciously regard their children as an arts project and insist their children go to colleges and have jobs that will give the parents status and pleasure — that will validate their effectiveness as dads and moms.

Meritocratic parents “use love as a tool to exercise control.”

High expectations  are to blame for a wave of suicides at Palo Alto High School, suggests Motoko Rich, also in the New York Times. Paly is my daughter’s alma mater.

“Across the street to the west, Stanford University beckons as the platonic ideal,” she writes. “To the east, across a bike trail, are the railroad tracks where three boys from the school district have killed themselves this year.”

This is Palo Alto’s second suicide cluster. “Five students or recent graduates of the district’s other high school, Gunn High School, killed themselves beginning in 2009.”

Students at Palo Alto's Gunn High School  mourn a classmate. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Mercury News

Students at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School mourn a classmate. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Mercury News

There are now guards posted at the railroad tracks, but they can’t be everywhere.

Parents say, “All I care about is that you’re happy,” said Madeline Levine, a local psychologist. “The kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ”

I want you to be happy — at Stanford, Yale or MIT.

In high-achieving communities, children believe “that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college,” said Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford. “In everything.” It’s Stanford or flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

“It’s awfully hard to be the best here, given the curve” is the line that resonates the most with my daughter, she wrote on Facebook. “Yes, growing up in Palo Alto, I felt pressure to succeed. But I am also grateful that I learned, very early on, that it was ok not to be the best.”

 

Choosing death at 15

At a suburban Virginia high school six students have committed suicide in the last three years, reports the Washington Post.

“There is too much stress in my life from school and the environment it creates, expectations for sports, expectations from my friends and expectations from my family,” wrote Jack Chen, 15. He’d earned a 4.3 grade point average, captained the junior varsity football team and competed in crew and track. He stepped in front of a train.

The six boys who killed themselves were good students and athletes with supportive parents, according to the Post. They did not appear to be “troubled.”

Girl saves boy, faces expulsion

Sixth-grader Adrionna Harris saw a boy cutting his arm with a razorblade at her Virginia Beach middle school. She persuaded him to give her the blade and threw it away. The next day, she told a school administrator what had happened. She was suspended for 10 days with a recommendation for expulsion. She’d handled the razorblade.

After her mother complained to the local TV station, the administration moved up the disciplinary hearing and cleared the girls record. She missed four days of school.

“She thought he would bleed out, as he was cutting himself, and there was no teacher in sight,” said Rachael Harris, the girl’s mother. 

Adrionna said she’d do it again. “Even if I got in trouble, it didn’t matter because I was helping him.”

“The way school officials responded led to a question of if the school’s zero tolerance policy went too far,” reports WAVY-TV.

Ya think?

Korea: High scores, unhappy kids

South Korean students are among the best in the world, according to PISA. They’re also the world’s least happy school children reports Quartz.

Economic growth rates are high in South Korea. So are suicide rates. Some blame the intense academic pressure.

High math scores correlate –somewhat — with unhappiness, notes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. Those happy Indonesians score near the bottom in math. (Qataris are depressed and bad in math, however.)