As students, parents and educators push to have an honest conversation about the suicide epidemic in Severna Park (see also “Suicide Prevention And Awareness In Severna Park,” “Anne Arundel's Crisis Response Is Here To Help” and “Let’s Talk: Suicide Prevention And Awareness”), they are all taking a hard look at our local culture of perfectionism. In the words of one parent, Colette Cross, “We need to take some of the pressure off – it’s OK not to get straight A’s.”
I spent the past few weeks talking to members of the Severna Park community about suicide, why it’s so prevalent in Severna Park, and how they think we can work toward absolving this problem that has already claimed too many lives.
Here are my thoughts and reflections, as the editor of the Severna Park Voice, on everything I learned from these conversations. The insight I gained was valuable not only as a journalist working on an article but also as a member of this community.
See, I remember my first interaction with suicide. I was in middle school, and a girl who went to the high school with my older sisters took her own life by jumping off the bay bridge. It wasn’t until I started doing my recent research and reading up on the history of suicide in Severna Park that I realized people were saying the exact same things 20 years ago as they are saying now.
There have always been certain expectations of Severna Park youth – the pressure to excel, to be the best, to be perfect. To maintain great grades, to look a certain way, to be the star of the sports team. To be liked by the right people, to make your parents proud, to get into a good college. The list goes on.
Here we are, 20 years and nearly as many suicides later, and the culture hasn’t changed.
But what I’m hearing now from teens, parents, educators and professional experts is that enough is enough. The conversation should not happen for a few weeks, then fizzle out only to be revived when another tragedy happens.
“There are holes people are falling through and we have to figure out how to plug them,” Cross told me. “Why do we have to wait until there’s a crisis? … We need to jump up and down before people are dead.”
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cross’ daughter, Parker Cross, and her friend Katrina Schultz, who organized the recent presentation “Let’s Talk: Suicide Prevention and Awareness” at St. Martin’s-in-the-Field. These two opened up about what it’s like to be teenagers in Severna Park, and even as someone who graduated from SPHS nearly 15 years ago, I was shocked by some of the stuff they shared with me.
Regardless of where the pressure starts, there’s an understood expectation that SPHS students should take as many AP classes as they can fit in their schedule – some as many as four. (If they take four AP classes, they are granted the privilege of a free period to use as study hall.)
After sports practice in the afternoons, students face hours of homework and studying because they have to make straight A’s. Maintaining a 4.0 isn’t good enough – they should be setting their sights on a 4.5.
Even students like Parker – students who don’t face the pressure from their parents and who recognize the harm of setting so high a standard – can still find themselves caught up in the frenzy. She admitted she felt disappointed in herself for getting a B in pre-calculus because she wants to get an A. For context, a standard track for graduation sets a junior in algebra II, not pre-calculus. But what’s standard elsewhere isn’t standard in Severna Park. “The standard in Severna Park is honors and AP,” Parker said.
Adding to all their stress is a social stigma against opening up or venting about all the stress and emotional toll that this pressure causes.
And keeping it all bottled up inside is a huge part of the problem. “I think teens need some time to get together to just unload and talk about what’s going on in a safe space,” said Jennifer Corbin, the director of Anne Arundel County’s Crisis Response System. “How do we help our young people talk about feelings and know it’s OK, and then also have the peer support around that? I think one of the key things is letting kids hear from other kids.”
Most of the people I talked to agreed that students are willing to open up when they feel they’re in a safe space. Maria Putzi, a parent who attended “Let’s Talk,” said that when students knew they were in a respectful atmosphere where nothing left that room, they let down their guard and opened up. “We as a community owe it to these teens to give them safe places to talk,” Putzi said.
Even if students have safe places to open up about their struggles, how does a community like Severna Park go about changing its high-pressure culture that causes all this turmoil? How do teens get the message that they don’t have to ruin their mental health to overachieve?
That’s a message that the school system and parents need to work together to send. “Part of attacking the issue begins at home,” said Bob Mosier, public information officer for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “Parents need to have conversations with their kids about that issue. … The notion that a school can correct, in six and a half hours a day, the things that are generated at home and in the community is folly.”
Parents should also be aware of indirect messages that they give their children. As parent Rebecca Binstock pointed out, some praise can easily come across as bragging, which just furthers the problem. “There’s too much competition among the parents – I think social media plays a big part of that because we love to post about our kids,” she said.
Binstock acknowledged that she herself is guilty of posting about what her kids have achieved. But in a community where students feel as if being average doesn’t make them “good enough,” she wants her own children and their peers at SPHS to know that their value goes beyond what somebody would see on a resume or college application. “Treating others well, being respectful, volunteering – those are the important things,” she said. “There’s a line between being proud of what your kid accomplished and making them a trophy.”
These observations have been made about Severna Park for a long time, but something about the conversation this time seems very different. This time, everyone involved sounds dedicated to keeping the discussion going so that 20 years from now, we aren’t still facing the same crisis and citing the same reasons behind it.
I think Parker Cross put it best when she told me, “Something needs to be done. It starts with a discussion so everyone is on the same page. We can’t be divided.”
This is the latest in the Severna Park Voice’s series on suicide awareness and prevention. Look for more information in the upcoming print edition, which will be delivered to homes on April 4.