Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Some are snowflakes, others live in a furnace of pressure." From Dr. Amelia.

Hey miserians,

I was especially interested in this article in the New York Times about teen pressure in Palo Alto. While I think it's easy to blame it on that wacky, degenerate Silicon Valley culture, I can tell you that I don't live in any of the places mentioned in the article, but my kids' high school is exactly the same here in a city with a nearby Whoopty Doo U.

Anyway, thought you'd be interested.

- Dr. Amelia


  1. How tragic and horrifying, all the more so since it's so unnecessary. We'd appreciate getting more highly motivated students here at Fresno State, particularly if they'd show the kind we usually get how to make better use of the opportunities we faculty make for them.

    The problem was thrown into sharp relief for me by a high-school student like this I made the mistake of allowing to enroll in one of my classes. This student would never even consider attending Fresno State as a regular undergraduate: indeed, mentioning UC Berkeley caused this student to give me a look as if there was a bad smell in the room.

    And yet, when this student didn't do well in my class, because it was clearly the lowest in this student's countless priorities, this student came and cried in my office. I hope this student at least learned how to handle adversity, but the behavior fostered by an overly supervised, overly sheltered background says "not ready for college" and "will likely need therapy." Engineering high-school students to be perfect specimens for college admission committees, often with scant regard for what they want, is running up far too much of a human cost.

    1. P.S. No jokes about sheep with this one: this is serious.

  2. Very, very sad. I heard of two suicides of more or less college-aged young people in the last week, one who probably fit the demographic on which the article focuses (a Middlebury student, prep school classmate of a relative -- a demonstration that the pressure, or whatever the cause, doesn't end with college admissions), and one who may or may not have (pressures on the families of those serving in one way or another in the extended Mid-East conflict may have contributed to this second case).

    The possibility of "suicide contagion" is especially scary, and the bit I've read about it suggests that one has to be very careful in ascribing causes/reasons to suicide, lest one increase the danger of contagion. The Times has actually written about the issue, it turns out, in reference to Robin Williams' death; I can't help wondering whether the present op-ed piece comes close to increasing the risk itself, by seeming to at least partially endorse the view that the pressures on some young people are unendurable. There's also something potentially exploitative in the quoted experts using a story about teenage suicide to advance their pet theories about what's wrong with current childrearing practices (though one -- the psychiatrist -- seems to have framed his comments very carefully, emphasizing that suicide has multiple causes, and one has to take into account that the other's ideas are filtered through the columnist's lens; it's somewhat hard to ascribe responsibility when you don't know what questions a columnist asked, or whether an interviewee fully approves of how his/her ideas were used). While I'd probably agree with much of what they have to say about pressure and helicoptering and such, I'm finding myself uncomfortable with the associations, implict and explicit, between ideas here.

    The skeptical part of me also wonders whether suicide is any more common among privileged, pressured youngsters than among the general population (and/or whether it takes different forms in different populations). The other thing that bothers me about the column is the unspoken assumption that the "best and the brightest" should somehow be immune to "sadness" -- and/or that the "sadness"/depression/death of those who aren't among the "best and the brightest" is somehow more understandable and/or acceptable.

    tl;dr: I'm tired, and not expressing myself very well, but I find myself at once saddened by the suffering this column portrays, in sympathy with many but not all of its premises, and disturbed by some of the implied connections among ideas.

    1. P.S. it seems to me that Jenny Lawson/The Bloggess has one of the more effective short explanations of why one shouldn't commit suicide (sort of hyper-condensed cognitive therapy): "depression lies" (especially about the fact that almost everybody who feels utterly hopeless at some point in their lives, often for good reasons -- chemical, situational, or both -- does not keep feeling that way for the rest of their lives). I'm pretty sure that reading her recent post about her upcoming book -- or the book itself, when available, or the video linked here, especially c. 2.35 on -- would be a lot healthier for the overstressed young people about whom Bruni and his interviewees are expressing such concern than reading Bruni's column, or others in the same vein, would be. Which doesn't mean that the column shouldn't be written, or the problems it describes addressed (goodness knows, I'm all about identifying problems and complaining about them; if I weren't, I wouldn't be hanging around this place), but somehow there needs to be a balance between diagnosing the problem and coming up with coping strategies that will work whether or not the problem is fixed (but that don't pretend the problem isn't real -- that approach is even worse than giving the problem too much power).

    2. As I recall from my college psych classes, suicide is more common among young people (in general) than folks at other age ranges, as are most forms of violence. But you raise good points here about how we direct our sympathy and whose suffering is seen as tolerable or intolerable (a question not without relevance to current conversations around assisted suicide.)

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