Stress and Suicide: The Disturbing Academic Pressure on Silicon Valley Teens

Silicon Valley, located in Northern California, is the epitome of success and prosperity in America. It is the home of global companies such as Apple, Facebook, Netflix, Oracle, Tesla, Google. The region itself is one of California’s richest, with average yearly wages of $105K compared to California’s average of $61K. It holds some of the most educated, with 47% of the residents holding Bachelor degrees “compared with only 32% in California and 29% in the United States.” Top schools dot the region from Stanford to UC Berkeley.

Growing up in such an environment is a privilege in many ways. There is widespread access to resources, tutors, qualified teachers and the top high schools. Seeing success wherever one goes, provides for an inspirational, uplifting environment— that is— until students enter high school.

High school is stressful as it is, but when a school sends about 20 students to Stanford every year, offers 22 AP courses where over 50% of the students score perfect scores, and is located just 5 miles from the dream school of almost every Californian kid, that stress becomes overwhelming.

This was the case of Gunn High School, located in Palo Alto California, who in 2009 had 5 students commit suicide all over the span of nine months.

In addition to this, 42 Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for “significant suicide ideation.”

These harrowing statistics leave many people with the simple question of “Why?” Why would students who are offered so many opportunities and privilege be led to such thoughts? Why would these students feel so pressured? Why would these students, often born with a silver spoon in their mouth, be tempted to end their lives? Because of all the complexities and multiple and overlapping stressors, there is no simple answer.

According to Gunn High School students, the answer to the big “Why?” is the academic rigor of schoolwork, pressure from successful parents and excess of extracurricular activities.

Students start school at seven, get home at three, go for extracurriculars until six, eat at eight, then start their hours and hours of homework and studying, often not finishing until the wee hours of the night.

College-obsessed parents are widespread, with enrolling their middle school children into thousand-dollar SAT classes and constantly conversing about grades and extracurriculars. All this is in the means to craft that perfect college application; this perfect application that often comes with severe depression, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health issues.

This trend is not unique to Gunn High School students, but rather to all high schools in Silicon Valley. Mental health disorders in the Bay have been skyrocketing.

A survey at Irvington High school in Fremont reports “54 percent of Irvington students suffering from depression and 80 percent showing moderate to severe anxiety levels.”

These students list almost identical reasons as Gunn students in regards to their poor mental health.  

Growing up in Silicon Valley is both a blessing and a curse. The opportunities given to youth are spectacular; however, the pressure that comes along with it wipes away all quite a bit of its shine. Being acquainted with many Silicon Valley teens myself, I can adamantly say that mental health is one of the most pressing issues for youth in the area. Though awareness and the stigma around mental illnesses have made great strides in the recent years, the work is far from done.

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Sameera Khan
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Sameera Khan is a 17-year-old Muslim, Pakistani-American living in California. She is passionate about education reform and race relations. Check out her Arts + Culture articles here: http://culture.affinitymagazine.us/author/sameerakhan/

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