Staff editorial: It starts with us — fostering supportive school culture necessary

September 17, 2015 — by Fiona Sequeira

Sept. 12 marked the three-year anniversary of Audrie Pott’s suicide, a heartbreaking event that caused us to critically examine our school culture. Since Audrie’s passing, the school has facilitated a crucial shift toward a culture with greater emphasis on mental health.

Sept. 12 marked the three-year anniversary of Audrie Pott’s suicide, a heartbreaking event that caused us to critically examine our school culture.

Since Audrie’s passing, the school has facilitated a crucial shift toward a culture with greater emphasis on mental health, establishing a strong student support system on campus through programs such as Counseling and Support Services for Youth (CASSY), which provides therapy and counseling, and Accommodating Saratoga Students with Intervention, Support and Therapy (ASSIST), which provides academic, social and emotional support.  

Yet while we’ve seen tremendous strides in a positive direction, more work is left to do in this area. The school’s academic rigor is often blamed for causing the bulk of student stress. But what some consider a toxic educational atmosphere is in reality fueled by an underlying competitive mindset prevalent in our community.

What students need is not the end of academic rigor, but a fundamental reformation of school culture in which we foster a supportive environment founded on unity and compassion — an effort that begins with each and every one of us.

While the school has rightly taken it upon itself to do nearly everything in its power to create a safety net for students through counseling and related services, we as students ultimately have the greatest impact on our school climate. Rather than engaging in cutthroat competition, it is our collective responsibility to provide a support system for one another. Solidarity and kindness must become the norms in our peer relationships.

At an academic powerhouse like SHS, stress is an undeniable part of the school fabric. Although we are fortunate to live in an affluent and safe community, life is often not a breeze. We are the children of supremely successful parents who have set the precedent of intelligence, drive and achievement that each of us is encouraged — nay, expected — to emulate or even exceed.

Many of our parents are first-generation immigrants — the crème de la crème who have moved to the U.S. to pursue opportunity. Silicon Valley, while an incubator of the innovative entrepreneurial spirit, breeds a highly intense culture that, whether we realize it or not, is the very backdrop of our childhoods. With companies like Google and Apple just minutes away, we have grown up constantly reminded of the paragons of “success.”

Our stress is compounded by the fact that at home, many parents avoid discussing “bad news,” or dealing with their child’s stress. There is sometimes a cultural reluctance, largely a result of our city’s demographics, to discuss notions of stress and possible mental health issues. Pretending there is no problem is, unfortunately, how many parents cope with a problem.

Yet the stress we experience is derived not only from our parents: We often place immense pressure on ourselves. And while this enterprising, ambitious spirit is key to achievement, striving for perfection at the expense of mental, emotional or physical health is a perilous path. We must lose the idea that in order to be happy and whole, we have to embody the entire package at all times: academically, extracurricularly, socially, physically, etc.

Behavioral psychologists have dubbed a phenomenon called the “Duck Syndrome” to describe the misleading gap between appearance and reality. A duck glides effortlessly on the water, maintaining a calm, collected exterior. But below the surface, it’s paddling furiously in order to keep itself afloat. Similarly, Saratoga High students are often brilliant actors who know how to bottle up their emotions and convince others that they’re fine, even when they’re dealing with tremendous stress.

The key to fostering supportive peer relationships, and thus bolstering our school culture, lies in re-examining the perception that success lies in perfection. Many of our problems arise when we do not achieve the results we would like, compare ourselves to those who never seem to falter and then experience feelings of mediocrity, which in turn engender a decline in self-esteem. This sparks a downward spiral where we dismiss our own unique strengths and talents.

There are so many bright minds at SHS, creating a distorted bell curve of high achievers. We often tie our self-worth to our notch on the academic totem pole, with the implication that the higher our GPA or SAT scores, the better we are as human beings. We have the unhealthy tendency to believe that someone being “better” than us at something means that we ourselves have no worth.

We often like to compare our “behind-the-scenes” struggles with others’ “highlight reel” achievements, resulting in a dangerous blow to our self-esteem, a skewed perception of success and an indirect competition with our peers.

And worse, this lack of self-esteem is not always internalized and hidden. Some students cope with insecurity, poor performance and pressure by lashing out at others, manifested in dangerous behaviors such as bullying, which can occur either in person or online. In fact, in an anonymous school-wide poll conducted at the end of last school year, one of the main problems reported by students was the misuse of social media and the rise in cyberbullying. Last year, principal Paul Robinson even attempted to “ban” the anonymous posting app YikYak on campus, but that didn’t stop relentless occurrences of nasty personal attacks aimed at specific students.

Ultimately, we’re all going through this challenging, demanding and complicated time called high school together. Because we interact with each other on a daily basis, we must forge a camaraderie where we respect one another for reasons that have less to do with achievements and more to do with who we are.

The changes in student behavior can be simple yet powerful. When we get a test handed back, we don’t have to brag about our score or jump to compare it to the score of the person next to us. If we notice someone struggling on a tough calculus or physics problem, we can lend a hand. We can simply take the time to ask how each other is doing, give a kind word of encouragement or offer a listening ear.

After all, the energy we spend begrudging each other would be much better spent befriending each other. We have to realize that we don’t need to drown someone else in order to stay afloat; in fact, lifting one another up will actually enhance all of our high school experiences.

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