On New Year’s Eve, back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.
“I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was I needed someone to do something.”
Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands, but that night it had become clear she needed help.
“It was really scary,” she recalls. “I was sobbing the whole time.”
Savannah was in high school at the time. She says the pressure she felt to succeed — to aim high — had left her anxious and depressed.
“The thoughts that would go through my head were ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ “
Looking back Savannah, now 23, says the pressure started early.
She told us her story as we sat at the kitchen table of her childhood home in Wilton, Conn., a wealthy community near New York. Her dad commutes to the city where he works in finance.
From the outside, Savannah’s life may have appeared picture-perfect: two well-educated, loving parents; a beautiful home; siblings and lots of friends.
From an early age, Savannah says, she was considered one of the smart kids, and when she arrived at Wilton High School, she was surrounded by many other high achievers. Lots of kids take a heavy load of Advanced Placement and honors courses. They play varsity or club sports and are involved in lots of extracurricular activities.
But by sophomore year, the high expectations began to feel like a trap. Like many kids at her school — and at elite high schools across the country — she felt compelled to push herself to get good grades and get into a top college.
“Even though I was getting A’s and B’s, mostly A’s, in all my classes — all my honors classes — I still felt it wasn’t good enough,” Savannah says.
No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better. “The pressure I put on myself was out of control,” she says. She says she felt the pressure all around her — from peers, teachers and her parents.
Newfound awareness of these kinds of struggles, has started a conversation — and new initiatives — in her community. A group of parents is trying to shift the culture to balance the focus on achievement with an emphasis on well-being. Part of the equation is freeing up kids to find their own motivation and life path. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use among kids raised in privileged communities.
A wake-up call
Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, feels she was partly to blame for the pressure Savannah felt.
“I know I was talking to her by eighth grade,” Genevieve recalls, “about how she needed to find out what her passions were, so she could get involved in the right activities … so that would look good on her college applications.”
But after Savannah’s problems began, Genevieve says, she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher courses. And the family started to focus on well-being.
“Up to that point, I totally bought into the idea we’re supposed to push our kids to achieve. When they encounter obstacles, we push [them] to overcome those,” Genevieve says. But pushing too hard can backfire.
Given the pressure-cooker environment in her community, Genevieve wondered how many other teens may also be struggling.
In order to find out, she got together with some other parents and counselors — and worked with Wilton High School to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the student body.
On the day we visited, the seniors were preparing for graduation. In the main hallway, there was a bulletin board on which students have each pinned the logo of the college they plan to attend. We saw Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt, Harvard — and many other highly selective universities.
Clearly, many kids…
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