Adults may remember high school as the best years of their lives, but this isn't the case for many teens.
One wrote in this year's Mental Health Awareness Essay Contest that once he reached high school, "the pressure came crashing down." He had to take AP courses, SAT classes, play music as well as sports, do community service, speak another language and show leadership.
"I had to be the best at all of these, so I could beat out all the other kids and get into the best college and get all the best scholarships and get the best job that would give me the best life," he wrote.
He and other teens wrote eloquently about their quest for success in this year's essay contest for high school juniors and seniors, sponsored by the Culture to Culture Foundation. The topic was, "How does your personal definition of success affect your mental health?"
"Unfortunately, our vision of success has been marred by societal pressure, which dictates that we must achieve stellar grades and maintain a thriving social life," wrote one student.
"The pressure to be perfect at school began to plague my rationality a year ago," explained an entry from Dougherty Valley High. "Students at my school overloaded themselves with five to six AP classes and would talk down to those who didn't. ... For months I would barely sleep at night, either from staying up to study or the relentless anxiety about failing. I felt behind in everything I was committed to ... I was desperate to escape from the responsibilities of maintaining a perfect life."
Others told of anxiety attacks and even becoming suicidal.
"Thanks to our 242 brave participants, we were able to experience what they go through in high schools," said Dr. G. Julie Xie, one of the contest judges. "They opened their hearts and opened our eyes. Many vividly documented how pressure from family and peers shaped their personal definition of 'success' as they began forming their beliefs about themselves and the world around them when freshman year started."
This year's contest, held for the second year, received entries from 78 high schools throughout the Bay Area. Ten winners were selected to receive $1,000 each, and 20 honorable mentions will be given $250; they were honored at Irvington High School in Fremont last weekend.
The winners include Kelly Knowles and Sania Elahi of Amador Valley High, who received honorable mention; and Liya Khan, who will receive $1,000, and Allison Pei, $250, from Dougherty Valley High.
"Reviewing the entries alongside four other judges, I was touched and inspired by our teenagers' heartfelt sharing in each and every essay," Xie, a school psychologist for Fremont Unified School District, said. "As an educator and school psychologist, this topic is particularly dear to my heart as I have been studying and presenting on the 'true success in education' for different schools over the past three years."
She noted that our area is known for its pride in good education but has suffered several heartbreaking losses of high achieving students during the last five years.
"Those are echoed by sad news from elite universities throughout our country," Xie continued. "For instance, Harvard Crimson found that, counting enrolled undergraduates who committed suicide either on or off campus, Harvard's suicide rate is 18.18 per 100,000, which is significantly higher than the average for college students. That rate increases to 24.24 per 100,000 when students who committed suicide while taking a leave of absence are included.
"And the list goes on in Princeton, Cornell, Stanford and other prestigious colleges. Those are our cream of the crop, decorated with all signs of 'success' such as perfect transcript, trophies and awards from all fields, leadership roles, etc."
Xie remarked that Culture to Culture's Mental Health Awareness Essay Contest is a way to know the younger generation through their own voices.
"While we are relieved to see that, with support from family and friends, many teenagers grow and learn from their struggles during the four years in high school, there are also many others who identified the negative impact of an unhealthy definition of 'success' but continued to be confused about how to overcome it," she said.
"We pray that more teenagers could have an opportunity to read those essays, learn from their peers' experiences and lessons, recognize the importance of mental health and grow along their journey to true 'success.'"
The ultimate goal of the contest is to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in high school students.
"We would like to invite high school students, educators, parents and people who are concerned about our teenagers' mental health to join us at the award ceremony," said Chia-Chia Chien, founder of the Culture to Culture Foundation, which is based in Alamo and promotes mental health within the Asian-American community. "I would really like to get the word out and invite more people to come to hear what our winning students and their parents are going to say."
"The standards of success at my school have produced a culture of guilt and inadequacy among students," wrote a student at Dougherty Valley. "I know for a fact I am not its only victim. Especially since the beginning of my junior year I have felt that everything that I am, everything that I believe in, has been reduced to meaningless numbers on a piece of paper.
"I am an advocate for changing this culture. While I managed to get out and get myself help, I am frightened that others may not be so lucky."