THE BLOG

Bursting From the Pressure

02/13/2014 05:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2014

The University of Pennsylvania community can bear no more. There have been four student deaths since Christmas. One passed away on vacation with his family. One student's cause of death has not been publicly released. And two committed suicide.

The story of Madison Holleran has circulated throughout the country, if not the world. She was a beautiful freshman girl that seemingly had everything -- from being part of an Ivy League varsity track team to being very well-liked among her peers. Clearly she did not have everything, though, as she chose to take her own life this winter.

Even more recently, a Penn sophomore, Elvis Hatcher, took his life as well. The entire school is in shock, unable to imagine that the worst had not already happened.

Since Madison's suicide in particular, there have been a plethora of articles calling for greater attention to mental health issues and depression, as well as for mental health services to be more readily available at universities in particular.

However, perhaps instead of vowing to provide better treatment for the aftermath of mental health issues, the roots of the issue should be attacked.

It is plausible that the environment that American university students are forced to live in is simply toxic. Maybe a culture that values over-achievement and pushing oneself to the limits is responsible for the high levels of stress, mental illness, and even suicide evident within highly competitive college communities.

This semester I am studying overseas, where I have been exposed to students of several different nationalities. A Dutch woman and an Israeli man both separately expressed their opinions to me that American youth are forced to cope with much greater stress and to grow up much faster than men and women in the rest of the world. While I may not fully agree with this, I can understand why they think this.

America is one of the few countries where college preparation starts below the age of 10, with parents encouraging their children to master a sport, an instrument, or a skill that can be marketed to admissions officers eight years later. It is also common for parents with the financial means to pay thousands of dollars for years of SAT tutoring. Children are expected to achieve inside and outside of the classroom, and internalizing these expectations causes high levels of stress.

Unfortunately, after being accepted to a university, the pressure to succeed only continues. At the University of Pennsylvania, the price for tuition, housing, food, and books for a student not on financial aid is over $60 thousand a year. Understanding that a student's family sacrifices such a large sum of money solely for his education is a large burden to bear. He must acknowledge that his family invests this much in him because he is expected to succeed and become who his investors wish him to be.

Aside from family expectations, every student -- especially at competitive colleges -- must cope with a great level of academic stress. Students have resorted to Adderall abuse as a study aid, binge drinking and drug usage to release tension, and pulling all-nighters to cram for exams that cover an immense amount of material.

Student athletes and members of other highly competitive activities within the college community also face intense pressure from coaches, peers, and whatever community in which their activity is part.

The responsibilities and expectations to which American youth have become accustomed are simply absurd to many of the international men and women I have met abroad.

Perhaps what is worse is that these problems are very rarely acknowledged in the U.S. Students are expected to cope with these everyday pressures without complaint. It is easy for those who struggle to feel alone and without a support system, especially at the larger universities. Student relationships with advisers are often impersonal or non-existent, and it is more than possible for students to fall through the cracks of a college's various social scenes. Seeking mental health counseling or treatment is largely stigmatized among college campuses as well. This creates an ineffective solution to the stress that can so easily build.

Our culture of over-achievement places more emphasis on success than happiness. It leaves American youth feeling overworked and alone, with more of their day being filled with unpleasant responsibilities than the joys that life has to offer.

We need to begin to focus on life, and for what we should live.

More fun and less competition should be encouraged -- especially for youth that have not even entered high school. Children should be allowed to pursue what they are passionate about, rather than what will look good on a résumé. Colleges should place greater emphasis on learning for the sake of learning, enjoyment, and community, rather than academic stress.

Certainly the family and friends of anyone who committed suicide would have preferred him or her to achieve less but still be alive today to enjoy life.

The shift in culture will not be quick and easy, but we can start now. I hope that the Penn community will be able to provide comfort and support to its heartbroken students and that future tragic suicides can be prevented.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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