Mental health professionals have repeatedly stated that suicide stems from severe and chronic depression or other mental illness. Suicide ideation, they say, is not the product of too much homework, test anxiety, too little sleep or worry about college admissions, in spite of the stress they may cause.
Unfortunately, and for good reason, instead of calming fears, these proclamations have fueled intense frustration, angst and disagreement in the community.
Some of these viewpoints are being published today in the Weekly, but there is also a robust and thoughtful discussion on Town Square, the Weekly's online forum, which logged more than 100 comments in the first 48 hours after the most recent tragedy last Saturday.
The comments underscore how the subjects of teen suicide, depression and academic pressure have become unnecessarily intertwined, leading to confusion as to the problems we are trying to address and their possible solutions. Suicide prevention should not be the reason we address problems in our community's competitive achievement culture. The social and emotional well-being of all our kids, which was made a priority years ago by the school district, should be on our agenda not because of teen suicides, but because we acknowledge that we are living in a system that is creating an unhealthy environment for learning, growing and finding happiness.
We must accept that we will never know, nor need to know, the specific reasons for the suicides, and we should not invest valuable community energy in debate or speculation about whether stress played a role. We must move beyond this fruitless discussion.
School officials and a network of adults in the community have been busily constructing scaffolding for at-risk teens since the 2009-10 suicide contagion. Enormous effort has been invested in Project Safety Net, a collaboration of nonprofits that, among other things, raised awareness of the "developmental assets" that are important to youth well-being.
But there has been ongoing tension about whether the focus should be suicide prevention, which leads to trainings, support services and education, or more general youth well-being, which leads to assessment of how parent attitudes and expectations, the competition for college admissions, and school policies and practices are fueling unhealthy conditions for our kids.
Of course we must continue to address suicide prevention. The efforts that have been made by the mental health community, the school district and others to increase awareness, watchfulness and opportunities for treatment have successfully steered many young people to the help they need and has begun to reduce the stigma of asking for help.
But in developing so many programs and strategies for identifying and helping teenagers who face life-threatening depression or other mental illness, we have also created a distraction from an equally important imperative: the happiness and well-being of all teens in a hyper-competitive culture.
This is the elephant in the room.
Many constructive and creative ideas have been offered by parents and students. Some, such as implementing formal monitoring and enforcement of the district's homework policy, are already being targeted by new Superintendent Max McGee.
Others include implementing a block schedule at Gunn, evaluating teacher grading practices to determine if grades are being improperly curved, reducing the number of grade reports, forcing consistency of class workloads in identical classes taught by different teachers, establishing limits on AP classes and requiring cell phones be turned off when on campus.
McGee and school board members heard emotional testimony from a roomful of tearful parents and students this week, including many proud Gunn students who expressed their support and gratitude to their teachers, administrators and classmates for helping them through these difficult days.
If there is one message coming through loud and clear from both parents and students, it is that district and community leaders need to act with greater urgency and not become paralyzed by a desire to find all the answers. The community is seeking bolder and more decisive action, even if it isn't perfect.
We hope the school board and McGee take these pleas to heart, place a review of the academic environment and school policies affecting it at the top of its agenda, and quickly develop the initiatives to begin changing the way we educate our children.
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