The Pressure Cooker

freshmen stressOverachievers have been succumbing to the pressure more and more over the past few years. For some students, the goal of perfection has led to suicide. Teens in high school and college are now over-scheduled and the competition is fiercer than ever. They do everything in their power to stay ahead of the curve to get the best grades, be the best in their sport, have many friends and still hold it together without anyone seeing their stress.  Parents, friends and professors may not realize the extent of the pressure and anxiety or depression the student is facing, until it is too late.

This was the case with Madison Holleran and four other students at the University of Pennsylvania, most recently. Madison was a track star with her pick of schools, was out-going and friendly, and achieving a 3.5 GPA in her first semester.  To the outside world she appeared relaxed, strong and happy, but on the inside she was struggling.  Students all over the country are finding freshmen year at their chosen school surprisingly different then they had expected.  Having the support and safety of their high school friends and family is no longer there in front of them. The comfort and security of being surrounded by those who know them best and even before they were the achievers they are today is out of reach. They are meeting new people and often make new friends but it isn’t the same as the old ones.  They don’t have the comfort of feeling the unconditional acceptance.  These students are working to “impress” the new friends in their lives and trying to show how they can compete academically and socially.

These students, like Madison, may not show their stress to many but they are feeling it. They see others looking happy and adjusting to college, so they feel they should be too.  They see all the tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook posts of friends on campus or from their high school who are smiling and having fun and think they can’t tell anyone how they are really feeling. The falsehood of social media makes them think they are not the norm.

The sadness and stress starts to manifest itself in many ways; depression, isolation, excessive drinking, eating disorders, and promiscuity.  They don’t want others to see their stress or anxiety since they are supposed to be such high-achievers, but when it gets too much, they see no way out and take the most drastic means of suicide.  The suicide rate at colleges and universities all over the country is increasing.  Students need to know that there are effective ways to come out of those debilitating feelings.  Unfortunately, the outreach on campuses has been limited due to funds in the past but some are taking the necessary steps to reach students before tragedy happens.

Anxiety and depression can be managed with professional mental health assistance but students need the support before we get to that point.  Students need to know it isn’t the end of the world if they do not get the highest GPA or score every goal in their game.  Although the reward of the grade for their hard work is commendable, students need to know that there is no punishment that should come from a lesser grade. Do we as adults fall with every misstep?  Is our future only based on a high GPA? No. Do we all need some down time and fun?  Yes.

All of it is a learning opportunity and we keep moving forward. Managing failure as well as success is all part of it.  We as a society are so focused on the successes and competing, students are not equipped to handle the average scores, the failures and the mistakes.  They breathe and torture themselves with every success and disappointment instead of picking themselves back up and trying it different or recognizing it is okay not to be perfect.  We need to give these teens the coping skills to handle those instants and the strength to be okay in those letdown moments as well as show them how to keep trying. We cannot allow them to punish themselves for not achieving perfection.  It is unrealistic and unattainable.  We need to let them know that trying your best is half the battle, having some fun or downtime is just as important, and to let others know when it all becomes too much.