I am dying—bit-by-bit, teardrop-by-teardrop, person-by-person, soul-by-soul. An energetic teacher, a gentle high school student, a soft-spoken police officer, a hilarious counselor, a giving salesman, a conscientious young adult, and an invested coach—united in their pain and divided by their death. As a career educator, a father, a brother, a son, and a human, a part of me dies with every suicide. They are connections lost, friends missing and lives forsaken. Nine people close to me (7 men) have killed themselves and more have attempted—or seriously considered—suicide. Young and old, with diverse backgrounds and experiences, some had diagnosed mental health issues, but for most death was the first outward indication of their deep internal struggles. These struggles are amplified on high school and college campuses, and we must look for opportunities to educate for survival at times of transition and change. The college admission experience is one such opportunity.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found 30% increases in suicide from 1999 to 2016, with some states showing even higher growth. Meanwhile, findings in a Cigna report indicate that adults age 18-22 are the loneliest generation ever and research from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health points to 30% increases in demand for campus counseling services. Anxiety, depression and suicide are rising among high school and college students, and data from the Higher Education Research Institute at The University of California Los Angeles shows that a third of all first-year students frequently feel anxious. From high profile deaths like Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams to often overlooked stories of young people prematurely ending their lives, we must ask ourselves why? We are living in a society that is increasingly disconnected, with individuals suffering in silence and finding more reasons to kill themselves than to stay alive. This must change, and as Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Alarmed and saddened by the rising rates of suicide in our nation, schools must double-down on efforts to address this epidemic.
High schools and colleges need to be teaching survival skills—resilience and grit, yes, but also vulnerability and forgiveness. We need to teach self-advocacy and self-awareness, but also compassion and connection. We must emphasize mindfulness, humility, kindness and humanity. Educators and business people talk about these as “soft skills”—social and emotional intelligence, character, communication and collaboration. However, increasing suicide rates suggest that these are the hardest skills to master and the most crucial to our collective well-being and survival. We support young people seeking fame, but what are we doing to help them deal with shame? We do an excellent job of teaching students to aim high and to achieve but we must do more in educating them to balance and relieve. Graduates need to know how to relieve the pressure, identify perfectionism, soften expectation and ease the burden of loneliness.
A potentially powerful rite of passage, college admission has the cultural capital with which to shift the tides of isolation, anxiety and disconnection that can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. Few rituals in American society carry more pressure or the threat of shattered self-esteem. Few tokens carry more worth than acceptance to a “name” college or university—in many communities, college acceptances are the most important measure of success. In Spiderman, Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben taught us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” College admission is poised to influence individual well-being and connection by nature of the values reinforced and the requirements that are prioritized. In many high schools, students reluctantly take calculus or the fourth year of a foreign language because that is what colleges dictate as most competitive. Other young people cram already full schedules with multiple AP or high-level courses because these are what “count.” Meanwhile, when reviewing applications most college admission officers discount health and wellness courses and omit them in grade point average calculations. Colleges should send the message that studying this material is as critical as learning equations or how to conjugate a verb—that in fact “soft” survival skills matter.
High stakes testing—a limited tool for predicting college success—bears equivalent responsibility. Because many selective colleges, competing with one another for the highest averages, continue to emphasize standardized testing, students spend insane numbers of hours—often every Saturday morning or the better part of a summer—toiling for elevated scores. This is a solitary pursuit and one that can pit students against their peers, causing intense stress. Imagine if the time relegated to test preparation was spent connecting with others through a job, service or simply purposeless play. We teach young people to compete but we must teach them to be complete.
Another way that colleges could encourage connection through admission is in writing submissions. Students go to great lengths in crafting a college essay, or personal statement, which is unique and distinguishing. What if all applications required two essay submissions, a personal narrative and a collective narrative? Colleges can reinforce the importance of community and the need for individuals to provide support for one another while also being willing to ask for help. We encourage young people to stand “out” but must also highlight standing “among.”
Educators have a responsibility to use the power of schools as communities to address the growing prevalence of suicide. Students take their cues from the values that schools emphasize. It is not enough to simply provide resources for young people as they struggle with isolation, detachment, anxiety and depression. We must proactively underscore the importance of engaging with others while reducing aspects of our educational systems that unnecessarily overwhelm our children at crucial developmental times. We need to be living—bit-by-bit, connection-by-connection, person-by-person, soul-by-soul.