Suicide is tragic enough, but it’s particularly bewildering when young people who appear to have it all take their own lives. But recent research into the national increase in suicide among those aged 15 to 24 finds a unique intersection that exacerbates the burden on those prone to mental illness—enormous pressure to be perfect, combined with seemingly having it all going for you, combined with feeling exactly the opposite inside. And social media isn’t helping.
In a fascinating piece at the New York Times looking at the influx in campus suicides, we learn that some 1,100 undergraduates commit suicide a year, according to prevention and outreach group Active Minds, and that the national suicide rate for the aforementioned 15-24 year-old group is on a “modest” but “steady” increase since 2007 according to the CDC. Also, that college counseling centers report from surveys that the number of their clients with severe psychological problems—more than half—is up 13 percent over two years. And, that at the University of Pennsylvania, where in January 2014, the popular, attractive, and talented freshman Madison Holleran killed herself, she was, tragically, one of six who would also take their lives that same year.
Julie Scelfo writes:
Ms. Holleran was the third of six Penn students to commit suicide in a 13-month stretch, and the school is far from the only one to experience a so-called suicide cluster. This school year, Tulane lost four students and Appalachian State at least three — the disappearance in September of a freshman, Anna M. Smith, led to an 11-day search before she was found in the North Carolina woods, hanging from a tree. Cornell faced six suicides in the 2009-10 academic year. In 2003-4, five New York University students leapt to their deaths.
Scelfo details the University of Pennsylvania’s efforts to investigate contributing factors, and their increase in resources and prevention programs—anything to make it easier for a troubled student to get help, whether it’s extending the counseling center’s hours, doing more outreach. But perhaps most importantly, being willing to scrutinize a well-known campus syndrome called “Penn Face”—essentially acting like everything is great when really you’re drowning. And it’s not just a Penn thing. Scelfo writes:
While the appellation is unique to Penn, the behavior is not. In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.
“Nobody wants to be the one who is struggling while everyone else is doing great,” said KahaariKenyatta, a Penn senior who once worked as an orientation counselor. “Despite whatever’s going on — if you’re stressed, a bit depressed, if you’re overwhelmed — you want to put up this positive front.”
Scelfo helps us understand these pressures and the often crippling anxiety they can create through the purview of Penn student Kathryn DeWitt, a 20-year-old student who openly discusses her frustrating struggle with depression and anxiety.
DeWitt, in short, crushed high school. Track, leadership roles, AP classes. Highly engaged parents who encouraged often but noticed every potentially slipping grade. She kept the hustle torch burning in college, where she tutored kids, joined a Christian organization, and soon experienced the deflating knowledge that there were other students who were more talented, smarter, more accomplished already.
“One friend was a world-class figure skater,” she told Scelfo. “Another was a winner of the Intel science competition. Everyone around me was so spectacular and so amazing and I wanted to be just as amazing as they are.”
While most of us can remember the precise moment in which we became acquainted with our particular limitations, we muddle through, accepting this as part of the experience of being alive—there will always be someone prettier, more successful, more talented, more accomplished. It’s up to us to carve out some kind of unique identity in the world that means something to us in spite of this truth, which cannot be altered.
But for college students prone to anxiety, depression, or other mental illness, this realization can be the beginning of a downward spiral from which recovery often seems out of reach. “What you and I would call disappointments in life, to them feel like big failures,” Penn counselor Meeta Kumar told Scelfo.
But why? DeWitt says that she became quite attached early on to academic praise, to hearing her parents brag about her accomplishments. It became a defining aspect of her self-esteem and self-fulfillment. DeWitt is also a planner, mapping out a career years in advance at a time when plenty of students might be content to use college to figure things out. She is also a lesbian, and the pressure of Christian perfection and the assumption that her parents would reject her for her sexual orientation—it was too much. Over-exertion, then a failing grade on a Calculus test, the confusion of her increasingly undeniable sexuality, all led to thoughts of death.
Then there was social media. Scelfo:
Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious.
And it’s in this chasm between the perception of the lives of others and the seemingly inferior reality of your own that the darkest thoughts can grow. One of the most common misconceptions about suicide is that your life must be pretty bad for you to want to kill yourself. But, crucially, it’s really the perceived discrepancy that matters to the depressed person more than any outside view.
In a fascinating, must-read post at Scientific American about what it feels like to want to kill yourself and the six criteria that often accompany suicide, that’s the criteria—falling short of standards—whose contours might surprise. Jesse Bering writes (citing the work of Florida State psychologist Roy Baumeister) that being poor, for instance, is not a high risk for suicide on its own. But being rich, and then suddenly, drastically becoming poor? Absolutely. Going to a mediocre college with uninvolved parents is nowhere near as likely to set you up for suicide risk as having engaged parents and a bright future at a so-called top school, only to feel you have somehow not measured up to the task.
Again, it’s the perceived discrepancy rather than the circumstances. Bering writes:
Most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives. Suicide rates are higher in nations with higher standards of living than in less prosperous nations; higher in US states with a better quality of life; higher in societies that endorse individual freedoms; higher in areas with better weather; in areas with seasonal change, they are higher during the warmer seasons; and they’re higher among college students that have better grades and parents with higher expectations.
… such idealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks. So, when things get a bit messy, such people, many of whom appear to have led mostly privileged lives, have a harder time coping with failures. “A large body of evidence,” writes the author, “is consistent with the view that suicide is preceded by events that fall short of high standards and expectations, whether produced by past achievements, chronically favorable circumstances, or external demands.”
There are more factors, of course, in suicide risk. Blaming yourself is one—thinking you are somehow, a literal worse person than others, even those who also “fail” in the same way you believe you have. Taboo sexuality exacerbates this sense of being less human. A high degree of shame. And a painful degree of self-awareness is another.
Social media is well documented in making most of us feel, at one time or another, that our lives are uniquely shitty when held side by side with the travel, food, and family photos of others—people who’ve seemingly mastered living in the moment, winning at life. But most of us find a way to quiet those voices or reconcile them: Things are never quite what they appear on the outside, we remind ourselves. Everyone suffers in some way.
But young people in particular are at a greater disadvantage. Most simply haven’t lived enough to know this intimately, to understand that comparing your life to another is a fool’s errand. I have a friend who theorizes that by age 35, most everyone you know has suffered something awful directly or via someone they care about—a parent’s death, a miscarriage, cancer, divorce, failed career. It humanizes us.
But it takes a long time to acquire the understanding that all of us are flawed, and dealing with our own particular baggage—and that some of us are just better certain things, including the art of making everything look perfect.
Scelfo notes that Madison Holleran was also skilled in this illusion:
Madison Holleran’s suicide provided what might be the ultimate contrast between a shiny Instagram feed and interior darkness. Ms. Holleran posted images that show her smiling, dappled in sunshine or kicking back at a party. But according to her older sister, Ashley, Madison judged her social life as inferior to what she saw in the online posts of her high school friends. An hour before she killed herself, she posted a dreamy final photo of white holiday lights twinkling in the trees of Rittenhouse Square.
There isn’t a final ending for everyone in the piece. Though Kathryn DeWitt had already written letters saying goodbye to everyone she cared about and had bought razor blades, her roommate noticed some troubling signs—not eating, talking of suicide, and urged her to get help. She is by all accounts back on track and works with Active Minds to raise awareness. She’s working through things with her parents. She’s thinking of changing her major to psychology.
But so many young people, Scelfo muses, are trapped in this swirl of hyper-achievement and pressure, but they are missing one critical piece: They simply don’t know yet how to fail. They have been so focused on getting it right, winning to set themselves up for a good life, that no one has explained that it’s OK to go back to the drawing board and start fresh, to scrap everything and try again. That in some ways, doing that sooner than later is itself a gift.
But what’s interesting is that in having such an experience with depression and getting help, DeWitt is now a more fleshed out person, more herself, more of the world, and better accomplished by virtue of her uniqueness than she ever could’ve been trying to replicate a brochure picture of success. Surely there is a sunnier way to have learned this lesson, but hoping kids learn these lessons in sunny ways is, on some level, part of the problem.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.