Academic Stress and Teen Suicide—One Woman’s Story


My cousin Alexandra attempted suicide.

Why? My family wondered. It was a shock, and childhood memories flashed through my mind of Alexandra and me running through the halls of our grandmother’s house, shrieking with laughter. On a ski trip with our families at Lake Tahoe, we chased each other with our hands held out, like claws, as we pretended to be monsters.

Since we grew up on opposite coasts we did not get to see each other often. It was not until six years ago, at a family reunion, where Alexandra and I sat alone on a beach in Maine that she told me her story.

There were three things that lead to her suicide attempt. The first was that she was skipped a grade. The other kids were older, bigger, and more mature, while she was young and impulsive.

The second was that she had severe nearsightedness that was not diagnosed until she was seven. “I could not read the blackboard,” she said.

The third was that she had undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder. “I’m easily distracted by things that fascinate me,” Alexandra said, adding that she has a different way of learning. “I see patterns in things, and in order to learn anything new I have to imagine it on a visual grid.”

Alexandra compensated for all those things with a combination of deception (she’d memorized the eye chart), a good memory (remember the eye chart?), and high intelligence.

Alexandra’s family moved often, so she attended five schools over a period of six years. Her parents divorced when she was twelve, and that’s when she was diagnosed with depression. Thinking that it would give her a sense of stability, her parents put her in a boarding school when she was thirteen.

“My family,” I began tentatively, “always wondered if you attempted suicide because you could not live up to your families’ expectations for being a high achiever. Was that why you tried to kill yourself?”

As she hugged her knees to her chest, she looked at me and nodded. “Exactly,” she said, “and I felt totally worthless because of it.”

She was 17 when she tried to kill herself. She was failing one of her classes. Everyone thought she had applied to universities, or had at least filled out the applications, but she hadn’t. “Since I was so smart everyone always expected me to excel, but I could not please my parents or teachers and I always felt guilty. It was assumed that I’d go to an Ivy League school. When you grow up hearing you can get a scholarship at Yale by having a legacy there through our great great grandfather, it’s hard to see any other options.”

The day she attempted suicide, her father and stepmother were on their way to see her. She knew how disappointed they’d be when they found out she had not prepared for college. She needed a solution. “I took handfuls of aspirin-based pain killers,” she said. “When someone is in the grip of suicidal impulses, they cannot imagine a time when they’ll feel better. No one can talk them out of it.” After writing a note, she left out special keepsakes for her family. Then she took off to die in peace.

Finding a place to lie down in some bushes under a nylon poncho, she noticed how the condensation caused by her breath created, on the poncho’s surface, a droplet of water. “Reflected, jewel-like, within the droplet,” she said, “was an upside-down, miniaturized image of the world I was about to leave. It looked so precious. It was at that moment that I realized I wanted to live on my own terms.”

Was it too late? She wondered. She lost bowel and motor control and vomited profusely. She had walked along a long, high, narrow wall to reach her spot. Could she make it back without falling? Progress was slow and painstaking, but, covered with leaves and excrement, but she made it back and got help.

Alexandra was taken to the hospital. The pills, it turned out, were non-lethal, but she hadn’t known that. Kitty, her stepmother, became a second mother to her. When Kitty visited Alexandra, Kitty told her, “We’ll care for you like a precious plum in our hand.”

“It was not until she told me that, “Alexandra said, ”that I started to recover.”

Some say that school stress doesn’t cause suicide, that statistics show otherwise. “Stop blaming the schools”, they say. Others say to stop blaming parents or peers. But ever since that afternoon on a beach in Maine, I don’t care what the statisticians say. They never met Alexandra. Yes, she had undiagnosed visual and learning disabilities, her parents had divorced, and she was depressed. Her family did the best they knew how by her. But if she had felt valued for the “precious plum” that she was, without feeling obligated to meet lofty academic standards that she could not meet, than maybe, just maybe, she would not have felt driven to attempt suicide.

I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 ½. Buy now on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+house+at+844+1%2F2. I live with my husband, two children, and our hyperactive poodle.

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elizabethjohnsonlee

January 2015

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