As a senior in high school my school faced the tragedy of loosing a student to his own hand. Unfortunately this was not the first time this had happened to this community but the fourth in four years. At this point I was the Editor-in-Chief of the school paper and wrote an address to the student body about the mental health crisis which undeniably had plagued our school for many years.
“I Don’t Know What’s Happening Anymore”
A call at five in the morning told students that they would get an extra two hours of sleep because one of their own would be sleeping indefinitely. A solemn march into the building from the parking lot. Only the thuds of feet against the pavement and the scattered blare of a car locking polluted the silence. A hallway filled with students standing in circles, silent with the occasional chatter of students who had not yet heard the news: one of our own was dead. At that moment he was everyone’s friend, everyone’s brother, everyone’s cousin, he was everyone. We all feel the loss in the sounds of our silent steps, in the tears on our classmates’ faces, in the black screens of our surfaces, staring blankly back at our own reflection. All of us wondering the same thing… what now?
We do not ask ourselves “why?” because we all know the answer. We all know the feeling of being totally overwhelmed, of losing sight of the bigger picture, of feeling like we’re losing steam. But, we all kept going. We all reached out to each other. We all made sure that we were ok, and if we weren’t we made sure we got better. We do not ask “why?” because this is not our first time dealing with such a loss.
I’m writing this on March 20th, and throughout the day phrases like “well the school needs to do more,” “I want to throw a fit in the administrative office,” and “the school needs to change this.” have been heard throughout the hallways. These messages are popular. It’s easier to blame someone else for the seemingly perpetual problem in this community. But I offer something else: nothing more can come from the school. In the Boomerang Project, ambassadors are told that they are the change makers. I take that a step further; every student in this school has the ability to change the culture we live in.
The school has been trying to understand what about our local culture makes it so hyper-competitive and what makes students put so much pressure on themselves. We, the student body, must start treating this problem as what it is: an epidemic. The stigma surrounding mental health is almost as big of an issue as mental health itself. The issue of mental health is far too ingrained in our culture to be solved by a few assemblies or a new testing schedule. What this community needs is a real change in attitudes from the students. We need people to help each other in seeing past the struggles of today and to realize how much there is to live for, to look past the prison walls of education which they build around themselves, and to understand the value of their own lives.
This community has faced the tragedy of a student taking his own life before. Each time this community has faced this tragedy it repeats the same narrative: make the school lessen the pressure, push back tests, give less homework; begin the race to nowhere. To every student, staff member, or parent in this community who believe the same course of action should be taken again I would like to remind you that according to Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.
What we as a community need to do to change this culture is more than just the occasional “how are you?” text that we’ll send for the next month before we forget the devastating, sinking feeling that we all feel today. We need to unite, not against anything, but for each other. We need to look at ourselves, and we need to start talking and not stop the conversation even if it makes us uncomfortable. We need to start talking and not stop even if we don’t have the words. We need to start talking and not stop even if we don’t know how to address it because the way to address it is to start talking.
Life is so much more than school, or grades, or SAT scores, or getting into your top college, or that one test. At Highlands we are hyper-elite. We have a work ethic like no other student body. We push ourselves to our limits and we get such tunnel vision that we miss the point of all this. We need more normal high school students who take a day off to go to the beach with their friends, not to get that extra day of studying for a test. If you’re stressed about school, if you feel like you can’t push yourself any further, if you feel like there’s so much going on under the surface that you might explode, take some time. School will be there when you come back, your extracurriculars will be there when you come back, everything will be there when you come back but you have to let yourself come back. Take the time you need.
We need to be there for each other more than ever, not just for a few months, but consistently. We can’t stop talking about this. It’s up to us, it’s up to this school, this student body, this staff, these parents to change this culture.