Pressure Cooker Culture: A Look Into Teen Suicide In The Bay Area

Young people contemplating suicide look, on the outside, like beautiful, have-it-all-together, happy-go-lucky teens. But on the inside, face extraordinary pressure.

Bay Area teens are constantly disclosing to me the pressure they feel to perform, to get in to the right colleges, and to be successful. As they drive themselves closer to these goals, many realize they can’t compete, and come to believe that there is no life beyond the highest of stakes.

Suicide is a heavy topic. It can be unthinkable, especially when it involves teens, who are supposed to be happy-go-lucky, planning bright futures, and looking forward to prom dates. But in the Bay Area, suicide has been an epidemic over the last few years.

As a therapeutic and educational consultant working in Palo Alto and the Bay Area, I am often called in to help after a young person has attempted suicide.

I tend to ask the following question of these teens after a suicide attempt: Did you really want to die and not exist anymore, or was it hard to find a way for things to get better? The answer does not surprise me. Most of my suicidal clients tell me that what they most wanted was to stop feeling the pain and the pressure, and that they didn’t know how to make things better anymore.

So what are the reasons our teens are entertaining suicide as a possibility?

Having interviewed dozens of teens after a suicide attempt, or those expressing passive suicidal ideations, the reasons are surprisingly similar and culminate in one loud voice stating: “I feel different.” “I’m not enough.” “I’m not perfect like everyone else.” “I can’t compete and I don’t want to anymore.”

When Meghan* came in to my office it stunned me that a modelesque, outspoken 16-year-old young person would have recurring thoughts and a plan to end her life. From the outside, her involvement on a softball team, her volunteer work, and her straight A’s perpetuate the stereotype of the ideal teen.

Meghan disclosed to me, “Vania, I’ve tried to open up about my depression to friends. No one wants to hear it from me. They can’t handle it.” She goes on to describe a scenario with friends who explicitly stopped talking to her, then de-friended her on Facebook after she disclosed how she was feeling. Even worse were the comments on social media after she disappeared for a few weeks to take a mental health break and seek treatment, followed by pictures of previous friends frolicking together without her.

“It is nearly impossible to be yourself here, or even human. It hurts to be alive,” Meghan told me.

Meghan is not an isolated case. Student after student report harassment on social media, or being ousted from friend groups for being in any way different or imperfect.

JT*, a 17-year-old who was on his way to planning college and a great future became distraught over his ‘average’ SAT scores. ‘People expect the best out of me. Now I know for sure that I am not smart, and I won’t be getting in to the colleges that the best kids go to,” he explained. He disclosed working so hard on homework and grades to keep up with the standards at his high school that he began to feel numb inside. Knowing another student like him who had recently committed suicide, JT constructed a plan. He reports that the more he thought about it, the better the plan seemed. “I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore,” he expressed.

17-year-old Lauren*, a student at a Bay Area high school known infamously for the suicide clusters in recent years, described to me how students anguish in the hallways after grades come out, crying over an A minus or B plus, creating a somber environment. “Pressure Cooker” is the term Lauren uses to describe her high school experience.

We have heard these stories before, yet they fade in to the background after the trauma of another death. Nothing seems to happen and young people continue to suffer quietly, contemplating ending their lives.

So, who is at risk? Well, any teen, anywhere who has felt different, imperfect, isolated, and perceives themselves to be alone, but especially here in the Bay Area.

Why here? Simply put, our standards are higher. As a student of mine once eloquently described in her college admissions personal statement, “We live in a success/excellence bubble.”

Call it a conglomeration of high-achieving, innovative people coming together to build a tech empire with new money abundantly protecting offspring from having to struggle. Perhaps with it, there is the cost of less time together, and family and community are sacrificed.

Perhaps, this bubble we hold onto hopes that if our child goes to the right school, and builds the right student profile, Stanford is a viable option. It’s just down the road, so it looks attainable. Our success creates a bubble in which everything looks probable.

Additionally, teen suicide has happened too frequently, making it a real option that looks like a pressure-relieving way out. Every time a young person commits suicide, the tragedy is met with kind words and attention: “We will always remember you,” wreaths, teddy bears, and roses creating alters attesting to a lost teen’s specialness – which can become attractive to a young person living in despair and wanting so much to be noticed.

Not Alonea documentary that will be released in the winter of 2016, features Jaqueline Moneta, an 18-year-old who, driven by a desire to understand why her best friend killed herself at 16, interviews Bay Area teens about their struggles with contemplating and/or attempting suicide. Jacqueline wanted to hear from teens who understood what was behind these suicides. She began interviewing teens and producer, Kiki Goshay, supported her in directing her film. Through her intimate one-on-one interviews, Jacqueline and the audience gain a window into the heads and hearts of teens who have contemplated suicide – what they were feeling, what their reasons were, and how they survived and began to heal.

Many parents think, “that would never be my teen, he is so happy,” or “she has so much going for her.” That may be true, but how can we start creating a culture that turns things around for your teen and all teens?

It starts by dispelling myths of what success looks like and creating a new conversation with our teens that:

  • includes validation of the human experience – that things get hard for everyone. It is normal.
  • affirms it is not just his/her imagination that Bay Area standards create a tough and often unrealistic environment. Their best really is good enough.
  • acknowledges that things have changed since we were teens. Social media is now the bullying platform running rampant 24/7, instead of the angry outcast heckling you in the hallway when you were at school.
  • defines success by kindness and effort exerted rather than by the college they get in to, or how many likes they have on Instagram.
  • there is always an out – and it might be taking a different, less pressured path academically or socially – but it is not suicide because they matter. Many different paths still lead to success. (I see this ALL the time and can assure you!)

Finally, we must address that mental illness is not simply a dropbox categorization for young people who are not functioning, performing, or feeling what they ‘should’ be. Humans become mentally ill when they come to perceive a challenging situation as impossible, or when they feel alone. It is not simply a flu of the mind, but more like a repetitive motion injury. “Oh, she was mentally ill,” I often hear as an explanation after teens commits suicide, as if the mental illness itself was some kind of alien force that entered a young person’s mind.

It is important to change the conversation and ultimately our Bay Area culture to one of compassion and understanding of our humanity so that our young people will feel safer disclosing feelings not only to their parents, but also among friends without risk of being judged, ousted, or categorized.

*Names have been changed for anonymity.