A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in 25 American teenagers attempts suicide and one in eight has thought about it. After recently reading a stack of essays written by high school seniors, I think I might have some ideas why.
The seniors in question are all Dual Enrollment students in a 7 a.m. composition course that I teach at Georgia Perimeter College’s Alpharetta Center. These are your classic over-achievers, taking a college class early in the morning before heading over to their high schools.
The writing assignment asked them to identify a problem that they face regularly and examine its causes. Nearly all of them wrote about the same thing: The immense pressure they’re under to earn straight A’s, make 1950-plus on the SAT, excel in extracurricular activities and get into a top-tier university.
They all wrote about taking multiple Advanced Placement courses (not to mention a college writing class) and juggling college application deadlines. They told of coming home late, after their sports or cheerleading practices, with several hours of homework still to do before they could even think about heading for bed. They described getting by on three or four hours of sleep each night. And they acknowledged the pressure they feel from their teachers and especially their parents to be outstanding at everything.
No wonder so many teenagers contemplate suicide. Most of them just want to rest.
I know what some of you are thinking: Welcome to the real world, kids. Life is full of stress. You might as well get used to it.
Really? Do you remember dealing with that much stress when you were 17? Because I sure don’t.
Not that life was a bed of roses when I was in high school; I was involved in lots of activities, and my parents certainly expected me to make good grades. But I do remember those years as a comparatively carefree period — maybe the last time I was ever that carefree. And I’m grateful for that.
Life is indeed full of stress … for adults. Does it really have to be that way for kids, too?
As parents and as educators, our challenge is to teach teenagers responsibility without placing the weight of the world on their shoulders; to help them learn to deal with stress without stressing them out beyond their capacity to cope.
I know we all just want what’s best for our kids. But so many of the demands we place on them and the expectations we have for them in the long run aren’t really as important as we make them out to be. So what if they end up going to Kennesaw State or Georgia Gwinnett instead of Emory or UGA — is that really the end of the world?
No, it isn’t. But ending up as another statistic in a JAMA study certainly would be.
Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and the author of “Family Man: The Art of Surviving Domestic Tranquility,” available at Books for Less in Buford and on Amazon. Email Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit familymanthebook.com.