Lowering the Pressure in Order to Prevent Suicides at MIT Is Admirable But It Doesn't Address the Real Problem

04/01/2015 04:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Without realizing it, Boston Globe staff writers Laura Krantz and Matt Rocheleau, began their article with the answer to the problem of suicides at MIT and other colleges across the country. They certainly grabbed our attention with the words "Maggie Delano never scored below a 90 on a high school exam." But I'll get back to that in a minute.

The article describes the sensible and sensitive responses of the MIT administration and faculty to the growing concern about the above average rate of campus suicides. (Amazing that we have to think in those terms, isn't it? Shouldn't one be above average?) Faculty responded to MIT chancellor Cynthia Barnhart's plea to lighten the load for students. Professor George Verghese cancelled a lecture, made homework optional and invited his students to accompany him to the Harvard Art Museum. An empathic Dr. Verghese recalls the inspirational impact of museums when he was "at the lowest point of [his] doctoral studies." Students at MIT are talking more to each other about the stress of school, exercising more, sleeping enough, eating better or petting therapy dogs in their dorms -- all good things, which will hopefully reduce or prevent tragic and premature deaths on a college campus.

It's great that the administration and faculty at a pressure-cooker of a school like MIT can take actions like this in an effort to reduce stress, and therefore the likelihood of self-destruction of some of the most gifted and promising students on the planet. While suicide at elite, highly competitive colleges is certainly a concern, this tragic scenario plays itself out in colleges of all kinds (Suicide is the leading cause of death among college students in the US, in many high schools and middle, and yes, elementary) schools. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24. It results in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. And that figure does not reveal the thousands of children and young adults who attempt, but do not complete suicides, and who are living, but with sometimes debilitating consequences of a botched attempt to end their own lives.

Let's consider a sobering statistic that I believe is linked to the increase in suicides. The number of children with a diagnosable anxiety disorder has skyrocketed, up to 25 percent according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The NIMH also tells us that "There is persuasive evidence from a range of studies that anxiety disorders are the most frequent mental disorders in children and adolescents..." I think this increase in anxiety (and anxiety disorders) in children is the "canary in the coal mine" for mental health. Many kids and young adults are teetering on their perches (the anxiety), and falling to the gravelly bottom of their cages (the suicides). I have come to believe that this burgeoning number of kids who present with excessive worry is a direct consequence of our inability to teach kids how to handle stress well, particularly the kind of stress that comes from fear of failure.

But What's Failure When Excellence Has Become The New Average?

There are a lot of possible explanations for the rise in anxiety and the increased incidence of suicides, but here's what I believe. We have a generation (at least) of kids who have not been inoculated against failure. Parents complain to schools when kids don't get A's because they think that will have a negative impact on self-esteem. Coaches give generic trophies to all kids simply for being on a team, and many have have lost sight of the lessons to be taught and learned from defeat. College-bound kids in high schools are under incredible pressure from their parents, the media, and even teachers and guidance counselors to get the very best grades in order to get into top schools. In this context, anything less than the best grade is considered as failure.

The supportive suggestion to "try your best" has given way to statements like"if you don't get the very best grade then you are a loser." Kids cry at home when they aren't getting high marks. Parents who can't stand to see their little ones in pain appeal to teachers -- not to make the work easier -- but be more generous -- give A's for trying, not excelling.

It used to be ok to get an average grade; after all, that was what most kids got, wasn't it? Once upon a time, C's had the power to motivate, and B's suggested better than average performance with room to grow. Not any more. Some kids plead with their teachers to give them A's. Others, like a lot of the kids who end up at MIT, stay up all night and work hard to get them. In the Boston Globe article, MIT student Delano, now a Ph.D. candidate who coaches undergraduate students, says: "I was devastated because I had never failed at anything ever before." (Yes, she said "anything"!)

It's not good enough to be "very good" or God forbid, just "good." Excellence has become the new average. What a burden for kids, especially those whose boats don't rise with the tide of increased expectations and higher and higher standards! The epitome of this ridiculousness is the expectation that all little kids leave kindergarten reading! For way too many kids, this developmentally unreasonable goal pushes the stress button early in life, and makes it very hard to keep up, let alone catch up. Children who grow up in an environment that relentlessly expects and values perfection do not grow into flexible, resilient young adults. Like over-hammered steel, they become work-hardened and brittle. When demands get too great, these kids don't bend, they break. Some suffer from depression. Some drop out. Some die.

Back to the Globe Article.

The article describes "A student from New Jersey [who was] foundering in her physics class her junior year but [was] too embarrassed to tell anyone." To prevent this fear of self-disclosure, MIT will be starting a campaign called "We All Struggle Together," to normalize imperfection and encourage students to seek assistance. This venerable institution is taking steps to promote open dialogue about a condition called "imposter syndrome" in which students feel like failures even though they have an impressive list of accomplishments. Kudos to MIT! All wonderful and necessary steps, to be emulated by other colleges and high schools.

For MIT, I hope this approach is not too little, but I know it's a lot too late. I contend that the perfect model of a suicide prevention program is found in pre-school, where kids are purposely put in environments that let them explore their personal boundaries, where they get to fall down, and then learn how to get back up and continue exploring. We lose sight of this approach to competence-building somewhere in kindergarten. Let's make that a core competency, and then we'll really see achievement levels rise (and save precious lives at the same time).

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