STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Part of a parent's job is to help a kid do their best. But pushing too hard can bring unintended consequences. As part of NPR's series How To Raise A Human, Allison Aubrey reports on one community that is trying to dial back the pressure. We should warn you that some details in this story are disturbing.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: On New Year's Eve back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.
SAVANNAH EASON: I was panicking. And I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself. Clearly what was happening here was I needed someone to do something.
AUBREY: Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands. But that night it became clear she needed help.
S. EASON: It was really scary. I was sobbing the whole time. I was falling apart.
AUBREY: Savannah was in high school at the time. And she says the pressure she felt to succeed, to aim high, had left her anxious and depressed.
S. EASON: The thoughts that would go through my head were, this would all be so much easier if I just wasn't alive and I just didn't have to do anything anymore.
AUBREY: Looking back, Savannah, who's now 23, says the pressure started early. She lives in the town of Wilton, Conn. Her dad works in finance in New York City. It's a very high-achieving community. Everyone at her school seemed to be taking AP and honors courses, playing varsity or club sports and involved lots of extracurricular activities. But for Savannah, these high expectations began to feel like a trap.
S. EASON: Even though I was still getting A's and B's and mostly A's in all of my classes, all of my honors classes, I still felt like that wasn't good enough.
AUBREY: No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better.
S. EASON: The pressure that I put on myself was out of control.
AUBREY: Her mom, Genevieve Eason, says she put the pressure on, too.
GENEVIEVE EASON: I was talking to her by eighth grade about how she really needed to sort of figure out what her passions were so she could get involved in the right activities so she could really show a commitment to them so that that would look great on her college applications.
AUBREY: But she sees it differently now.
G. EASON: Up until that point I totally bought into the idea that we're supposed to push our kids to achieve. Like, if - when they encounter obstacles, we're supposed to kind of push them to overcome those.
AUBREY: But after Savannah's problems began, Genevieve says she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher classes. But given the pressure cooker environment at school, Genevieve wondered how many other kids may also be struggling. To find out, she got together with some parents and counselors and worked with the school to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the entire student body.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right, guys. If you didn't finish, you're going to finish for homework.
AUBREY: I walk into Wilton High School, and there's a bulletin board where seniors have pinned the logo of their college. I see Vanderbilt, Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale. Clearly many kids here excel. But after surveying 1,200 students at the high school, the results of the mental health assessment showed a lot of kids are struggling, too. Here's Principal Bob O'Donnell.
BOB O'DONNELL: The survey results definitely suggested that Wilton High School's rates of anxiety and depression with students was higher than national averages - significantly higher.
AUBREY: Compared to a national norm of 7 percent, about 30 percent of Wilton students had higher or much higher levels of internalizing symptoms, things like headaches and stomach aches. This means kids may hide their anxiety or depression, not talk about it, but on the inside, they're distressed. Their survey also found rates of substance use were higher than average, too. I asked the psychologist who did the assessment, Suniya Luthar, if she was surprised by what she found.
SUNIYA LUTHAR: This is by no means unique to Wilton. It is a common phenomenon across high-achieving schools.
AUBREY: Luthar is a professor emerita at Columbia University's Teachers College. And she's published studies that document the elevated risks of kids who grow up in these communities. She says surprisingly, the rates rival what she's documented in low-income, inner-city schools.
LUTHAR: What we found is consistently the kids in high-achieving, relatively affluent communities are reporting much higher levels of substance use than inner-city kids. And levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are also commensurate if not somewhat greater.
AUBREY: Her most recent study finds even when these high-achieving kids reach their mid-20s rates of substance abuse remain high. The alcohol or drugs are a form of self-medication. Genevieve Eason says she's not surprised.
G. EASON: People choose a community like this because they're trying to give their children all these great opportunities, but it comes at a cost. And we need to take this seriously.
AUBREY: Eason says the survey findings have been a wakeup call to the community. If 30 percent of kids had some kind of infectious disease, there'd be an immediate reaction. But 30 percent of kids feeling sad or distressed, much of it hidden or unspoken...
G. EASON: I think the challenge is understanding what to do about it.
AUBREY: Already Wilton is trying a bunch of things. There's more training for school counselors. And beginning in elementary school, there's new initiatives to teach kids coping skills to prevent anxiety and to give them more free time. But not everybody in Wilton is on board. After all, a lot of success does come from high expectations. So Eason says there's been some pushback.
G. EASON: It requires a culture shift. We have to get out of this focus on achievement at all costs. We have to broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success.
AUBREY: Not just emphasizing an elite college or a high-paying career. And for Genevieve's daughter Savannah, this has meant ignoring many of her community's expectations.
S. EASON: I don't want to work on Wall Street. That sounds miserable to me. It always has.
AUBREY: She enrolled in culinary school, and she's training to be a pastry chef.
S. EASON: I'm never going to live the same lifestyle I did growing up because I'm not going to make that much money. But that's OK. It's not about how big your house is, what kind of car you drive. It's about happiness and peace.
AUBREY: This is a different kind of success.
S. EASON: I spend hours making a cake. And my favorite part is when you cut it up and people eat it 'cause that's the part where you bring joy to people. So that's what's important to me now.
AUBREY: And her parents are celebrating her success. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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