Palto Alto High School student representative Carolyn Walword wrote an editorial on Thursday that focused on the stress that her fellow students felt, which can drive some of them into suicidal thoughts.
The editorial, which was published on The Almanac on Thursday, highlighted the struggles that young people faced in that Silicon Valley community. A junior in high school, Walword elaborated on some of the problems she observed while attending classes within the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education.
"My stress began in elementary school, where students were segregated into separate class meetings as 'early' and 'late' readers," Walword wrote. "Although we were just elementary schoolers, we perceived this as a differentiation between the less and more advanced students and either felt superior due to our intellect or shamed for a 'lack' thereof."
Walword then noticed the segregation that occurred when she entered middle school. This time, it involved placing students on certain math-related tracks.
"Any math class without the word advanced in it was referred to as the 'dumb' math lane (a label that has followed into high school math courses as well)," Walword wrote. "I like to think of this as the reason I lost my enthusiasm and confidence for math so early -- how could I possibly feel intelligent when the class I was in was considered dumb?"
Walworth then explained how much stress was placed upon her and her fellow peers when she finally made it to high school. Her goal was "to use my education to achieve my goals and help solve problems in the world."
"A month or two into my freshman year, I felt the pressure building," Walworth wrote. "It crushes you on the inside to see what appears to be the majority of your classmates acing tests with flying colors, while you're just doing all right."
Walworth reported that some of her fellow students had suicidal or depressing thoughts based on the stressful expectations placed on them, including the balance of completing endless homework, getting good grades, participating in social activities, and practicing for the SAT and other college admissions tests.
"Let me make clear, I understand that not all problems relating to suicide and depression are directly correlated to school," Walworth said. "I am not saying that they are nor do I wish to assign blame for either of these issues to the schools. Suicidal thoughts and depression are complex, unique, and extremely personal difficulties."
Walworth argued that "students are gasping for air" thanks to the pressures surrounding them nowadays. She thought that the education methods used within the school district should be reevaluated.
"Effective education does not have to correlate to more stress," Walworth wrote. "Taking an advanced course should not be synonymous with copious amounts of homework. Challenging oneself academically and intellectually should be about just that -- a mental challenge which involves understanding concepts at a deeper level."
Walworth urged students, parents and concerned citizens to demand that school administrators also focus on student quality of life, not just on what's wrong with the school system.
"Tell them you demand that they actually get to work improving the quality of life for students," Walworth wrote. "Inform them that although it is nice of them to recognize student and staff successes at school board meetings, you would much rather see them devote the time to discussing how to improve student well-being."
As for how current students can deal with stress and thoughts of suicide, Dr. Adam Strassberg highlighted a few suggestions in an editorial for Palo Alto Online. He is a psychiatrist who also has two daughters in the same school district that Walworth attends.
"Our children need to be sleeping more than us, not less than us," Strassberg wrote, highlighting the link between depression and disrupted sleep patterns. "They need to be sleeping regular hours. Sufficient sleep must take priority over homework, athletics, social life, work, etc. I cannot overemphasize the importance of proper sleep hygiene."
Even though the topic of suicide can be "an uncomfortable topic," Strassberg contended that parents should talk with their teens "openly, honestly and calmly" about it.
"Asking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. Asking about suicide will not implant the idea of suicide into your teens," Strassberg wrote. "Asking about suicide decreases the risk of suicide. So please do ask your teen directly about suicide."
Strassberg made other suggestions to combat suicidal thoughts in teenagers, which included parents being positive mental health role models, wanting the best for their children, owning a pet, and staying calm. In spite of all these suggestions, the psychiatrist warned that suicides can still happen, even if they are rare events.
"Suicide attempts are not reportable events," Strassberg wrote. "We need to live with this uncertainty, and tolerating anxiety is a challenge for all of us."