Newton Suicides: Is High-Achiever School Culture Breaking Our Kids?

Dr. Gonzalo Bacigalupe is the president of the American Family Therapy Academy and a professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He's also a Newton dad, and writes here about the need to address the toxic effects of high-stress school culture and its possible role in recent teen suicides.

In Newton there have been three suicides in less than four months among our high school kids. To us, it feels like an epidemic. In general, the response of the school system has been to provide grief counselors plus meetings to air the sadness and share what the school is doing or plans to do in the future. Experts talk about suicide and psychological problems; they tell us, parents, what we already know: support your kids and be mindful of their mood and behaviors. The message: this is either a mental health problem or a parental issue.

But the school system is not taking responsibility for the stress the kids feel day after day because of the tremendous pressure the Newton high school culture exerts to achieve academically, participate in multiple extracurricular activities, and/or play competitive sports — never just for fun, always to score the best.

Of course, some students put pressure on themselves, and some feel pressure from their parents and peers. But the school system must hold itself accountable for the pressure it puts on its students.

The official message accepts this situation as an individual or family problem, rather than part of a collective narrowness and craze about achievement.

“Who could ever imagine that we’d be back here again under similar circumstances?” asked Newton Public Schools Superintendent David Fleishman Tuesday night as he welcomed nearly 400 parents to another community forum on teen suicide.

In the fall of 2013, some of us did tell him that this could happen again if systemic measures were not taken. I personally wrote him a long letter and forwarded the message to the principal of Newton South High School. In response, I received a thank-you note in which promises were made about the school doing more to support our children.

So just what is the culture of Newton’s public high schools? Despite the communal expressions of grief, this past Monday, the day of the funeral of Roee Grutman, many of his classmates, friends and acquaintances (this is a small high school) did not participate in this important event because most of the school kept all academic activities unchanged, including, for example, mid-year exams.

Despite the message to teachers about allowing students to miss classes, some teachers conducted business as usual. Many students may not have felt free to stand their ground and attend the funeral. They were deprived of participating in a collective healing that cannot be replaced by a session with a school counselor or a mental health practitioner. I know this; I am a psychologist, a family therapist, a public health researcher and a specialist in trauma response.

More generally, kids have so much homework that they don't have any time to have fun or just chill. The teachers tell parents that the homework should not take more than 30-60 minutes per class, but in reality, work for a single class can take three or more hours. As a result, the kids go to bed extremely late and have to get up extremely early.

The culture of staying up late to study is one of the first things upper-class students tell the younger ones to prepare for. Their senior peers tell them that if they don’t stay up late, they will not perform well.

The teens don't have time to socialize, to be around their peers, to enjoy family activities. As a result, the whole family feels inadequate. The schools create a context that the research evidence suggests is dangerous to adolescents’ well-being and academic achievement — the presumable goal of the whole system.

Lack of sleep can lead to depression and other serious illnesses. For most of the kids, the feeling is of inadequacy, of never being enough, of never being able to catch up, in a perennial, self-reinforcing process.

According to the latest world educational measures,

 the commonwealth of Massachusetts is rated within the top five highest in the world. Those are averages; it means that in Newton, the scores are much higher. But despite being extremely competitive internationally, the majority of the teens I've spoken with in Newton’s high schools feel inadequate and not as bright as the top achievers.

As the years pass, the weekends become study marathons; parents hire tutors and have to deal with irritable adolescents who — particularly the boys — cannot voice what torments them. Many parents are probably also feeling inadequate: If my child’s classmate is going to an Ivy League university or is getting a full sport scholarship, then there must be something wrong in what I am doing, because I have not helped my son achieve as much as the top 10 percent.

Parents are probably the most under-utilized resources in the school system.

One of the experts commented condescendingly in Tuesday’s meeting that suicides are not infectious. Well, they are not infectious diseases in the traditional medical sense, but the question of why suicides repeat is eloquently explained in a recent column citing research: “Suicides happen in clusters, with one person’s suicide influencing the other’s.”

We are devastated. The death of a child is the most devastating situation that any parent could face. My wife and I feel a tremendous sadness for the parents of these three teenagers, the same age as our son. But I am also very angry at the lack of collective response beyond grief and sadness. The official message appears again to continue accepting this situation as an individual or family problem, rather than part of a collective narrowness and craze about achievement.

What can the school system do besides offering crisis intervention and post-trauma counseling?

Families and parents should be invited to provide their views on the impact that the schools have on their children, via open meetings as well as anonymously via online surveys and focus groups. In almost two decades that I've observed the school system, I've seen that parents are not regularly asked for their input. More opportunities for parents to interact meaningfully rather than just hold speed interviews with teachers once or twice a year could be valuable.

Connecting school and families in more than informational meetings is not a regular practice. The school could also solicit help from the rich expertise among parents, as many communities with high-achieving students do. This is a town with high levels of expertise in so many professional and academic fields. Parents are probably the most underutilized resources in the school system. We are the most invested in the health of our children but often feel outside the decision-making process and treated with condescension. We are here to help. Maybe it is time for our town to join forces with us.

Raising and educating our children cannot be all about getting them into the best school that their SAT scores will allow. Newton’s self-congratulatory stance about its school system cannot stop us from demanding more accountability; we should be the first to stand up and stop this nonsense. If we are to have a great education in our town, we must rethink what it means to educate healthy and thriving people. No high-achievement culture can come at the cost of our beloved children’s lives.

Readers, do you agree that the Newton school culture may be toxic, and more must be done to address that? If so, what?

Further listening: Stress and Consequences for American Teens (On Point)

Further reading: Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools


More from WBUR

Listen Live