This week, San Francisco Magazine published an anthropological incursion by Diana Kapp into the lifestyles of the most privileged teens in the nation in order to ask: Why are the kids of Palo Alto killing themselves?
A cluster of teen suicides at Palo Alto high schools in 2010 was followed this year by another four suicide victims from the wealthy and achievement-blessed Henry M. Gunn High School. Fifty-two of its 1,900 students were treated for suicide ideation this past school year.
By Kapp’s account, the suicidal cases are only the tip of a very large iceberg of kids who, with every advantage in the world — educated, affluent, married parents, a great school system — are immiserated by the need to succeed.
You can joke about it, of course, but the voices she points to would break any mother’s heart.
“Overall well being is not good, our mental health is not good,” declared one teen. “You can feel stress radiating off people,” said another classmate.
“Because we live in this extraordinary place that really has some singular qualities,” says Ken Dauber, a Google engineer married to a Stanford professor, “we think somehow that our kids are also singular and extraordinary, but they are just kids.” Dauber and his wife lost a daughter to suicide in her early 20s.
“The majority of my closest friends admit to depression and self-harm,” the sophomore-class president said.
Carolyn Walworth, the student school-board representative, wrote a public cri de coeur, “The Sorrows of Young Palo Altans.” Stress began for her in grade school, where being placed in any class without the word “advanced” labeled you as dumb. But in high school, “Students are gasping for air, lacking the time to draw a measly breath in. We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs. We are not teenagers, we are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick.”
I was particularly struck by the concerned adults’ diagnosis of the problem, the way they described the potential solutions, which mostly meant looking for ways to “reduce stress” and let teens have more “fun.” The teens themselves talk about it in the same way.
Stress began for her in grade school, where being placed in any class without the word ‘advanced’ labeled you as dumb.
Stress in itself is not what causes people misery, anxiety, or depression, and fun is not what keeps people from wanting to kill themselves.
Listening to these voices made me think again of David Brooks’s astute comment that there are the Résumé Virtues and the Eulogy Virtues. The résumé virtues are what create success in status competitions. The eulogy virtues are what gives meaning to life in the face of the inevitability of that ultimate failure, death.
The problem is not that these teens are pushed to succeed at school; it is that when confronted by their own fear that they may fail to do so, at least at the same level as their peers or their parents, they have not been given a powerful vision of how and why their life would nonetheless be worth living.
The elite Creative Class in America prides itself mostly on its brains, and the amazing things that, with hard work and perseverance, one can contribute to the world through intelligence; all true and good as far as it goes. That is why elite parents try so hard to pass on their class advantages to their children through relentless development of their little human capital, from violin lessons to SAT tutoring. It is the same reason why so many elite stay-at-home mothers I know value their own mothering to the extent it produces daughters who succeed in the world of education and work. My daughter’s getting into Harvard validates my mothering. We seemed to have turned our very children into résumé virtues. To be a B student is to become a B human being.
None of us would say that out loud to our children, or even to ourselves. But the gods of the résumé virtues are relentless and unforgiving, unless their godlike status is contested, unless there is a world outside of work and achievement, some other definition of being human and worthy of love, some glimpse of the human soul.
— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.