The Risk of Our “High Achieving” Culture
This interview was conducted with YES’ Chief Operating Officer, David Downing.
What is unique about our community and its behavioral health challenges?
We have many high performing schools, some of which are nationally recognized, and this shaped a culture in which local youth are valued based on their educational performance. The challenge in this culture is that there is a competitive drive to be exceptionally successful without the consideration of whether that success is realistically achievable for the young person.
Have you seen that change over the years?
I have absolutely seen a change over time. The number of students in AP or IB classes, the expectations of perfection, resume building with extracurricular activities, and the belief that in order to be successful you need these things, has all increased drastically and has been a big, significant culture shift.
Why do you think it has shifted?
The 2002 No Child Left Behind law reduced kids to test scores. It created a level of competitiveness in our country that is driven by schools trying to achieve unrealistic goals and being penalized if they weren’t achieved. The comparative nature of social media has also influenced the attempt to achieve an unrealistic lifestyle. These expectations have also affected parental assumptions of what it means to be successful, and parents have become more anxious about doing the right thing for their children. It’s easy to fall for a narrative that it has to be college A and not college B or C, and if college A isn’t attained then it means failure. We hear it from our young clients all the time that the nation’s top colleges are promoted as the only route to success.
Who do you think perpetuates these messages?
This high achieving culture comes from many different factors. Schools have pride in the high performance of their students, how many are enrolled in AP or IB classes, and how many go on to college. The schools are also responding to their community, which wants their children to be successful, and be able to get into the best colleges, so schools create a curriculum and school environment to provide those opportunities.
The anxiety parents experience, if their children are not doing certain things at certain levels, drives parents to over-manage their kids. That anxiety tremendously affects the youth themselves, who go on to adopt these same fears and competitive nature.
How is YES responding?
We are one of the leading agencies doing collective impact work with Eastside Pathways, engaging with our school partners and other local organizations working to solve this problem together. Our leadership in piloting the Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Services, or SBIRT, the universal mental health screening program in middle schools, is an effective step towards helping identify mental health issues early. All while simultaneously increasing clinical support within school environments.
We offer Youth Mental Health First Aid Trainings to empower adults in our community and educate them on how to identify and respond to youth mental health and substance use issues. This year we’re excited to introduce the next step in this initiative, which is training youth to provide peer-to-peer mental health support. All this has been made possible through our partnerships in the community and the support of our generous donors.
Is there hope for positive change?
I think there’s hope in the sense that people are starting to recognize what is going on with young people today and the factors that have helped establish this negative culture. There are now many more people questioning these ideals and are concerned for our young people. I see more acknowledgment that social-emotional and mental health issues are relevant and valid, and people want there to be foundational change. School systems are also putting in a lot of work to have trauma-informed spaces and are investing more money into having professional mental health support within schools. But there’s still much more work to be done.
What can parents do?
- Consider how your child is spending their time and whether they are finding a time to rest and de-stress.
- Make decisions based on the wellbeing of your child, not decisions based on fear.
- Reinforce that happiness is not determined by going to a specific college.
- Have open and honest conversations with your child.
- Connect your child to other trustworthy adults for support.
- Share stories of others who achieved success in untraditional ways.
Whether you’re a teen, a caring friend, a parent or a concerned adult, you can reach our to YES for help. Contact us to schedule an appointment at 425-747-4937.