The Stress of Being a Constant High-Achiever
“Bright. Accomplished. Ambitious. At times anxious, deeply depressed, even hopeless.”
It’s not the first description that comes to mind about some of the high-achieving students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world’s most renowned universities for innovation, with a student body at the top of the intellectual scale.
But the stress of being a constant high-achiever, relentless competition, and the universal search to find out who we are in our teens and 20s can be an overwhelming emotional and physical experience. And it can knock a young person down.
MIT computer science professor Daniel Jackson calls the mental health crisis among young people “a global epidemic. It’s a huge, pervasive problem, not just at MIT…”
Jackson reveals how he saw the growing crisis emerge over the past several years in a PBS New Hour story by reporter Jeffrey Brown. Jackson created a book of respectful and sensitive black-and-white photos and stories called Portraits of Resilience, a bold effort by the professor and a group of students intended to shine a light on mental health issues and erase the stigma.
The message is that many young people are suffering from anxiety and depression, and we might be fooled by what looks likes “success” among these young achievers. And those mental health issues are affecting young people in homes and schools across the country, but there are effective treatments and it’s time to make them accessible and acceptable.
These student’s didn’t come to Professor Jackson to tell him they were anxious or depressed. They met with him because they were having trouble with their studies. Jackson says he talked with them about the specific academic problem, but then discovered disturbing patterns.
Jackson heard the students say, “Well, actually I haven’t spent any time on it because I can’t motivate myself,” or “I can’t get out of bed in the morning,” or most disturbing, “I don’t feel like life is worthwhile.”
Then Jackson “heard” what these students were really saying. It was basically, “I’m overwhelmed and confused and don’t know what to do now. Help!”
They were going under in the tide of responsibility and stress and were reaching out for help, consciously or unconsciously.
“Then I realized I would need to chaperone them over to mental health and try and help them,” says Jackson.
A study of American colleges in 2017 found that nearly 40 percent of students said they felt so depressed in the prior year they found it difficult to function. That study also found 61 percent of the students said they felt “overwhelming anxiety.”
A tragic statistic is that suicide is the second leading cause of death overall for college age people, after accidents, mostly automobile accidents.
Professor Jackson was already deeply saddened by the suicide of a friend on the faculty. So he decided that he had to do what he could, and the path was his passion for photography.
Jackson put up posters around campus asking students, faculty and staff to share their stories. He found a dozen people willing to tell about their own mental health challenges. They were first published in the campus newspaper, then collected in the book, Portraits of Resilience.
Emily Tang is one of the students who shared her story for the book. She said, “I would just sit there wrapped in a blanket. The achievement of the day was, I got out of bed. And I wasn’t eating. It was like one meal a day...when someone brought it and said, ‘eat this please’.”
Tang’s depression forced her to take a two-year leave of absence, but she’s back at MIT.
Student Victor Morales said, “I felt numb.” He didn’t experience happiness or sadness. He said he felt “nothing.”
Jackson says he thinks the early competition that begins years before college, the striving for the highest GPA, and social media with comparison of things such as the numbers of Facebook “likes” are among the many factors that add up to unrelenting pressure for young people.
Jackson hopes the book will help students to understand that if they keep measuring themselves against others, it’s an unwinnable competition. It’s healthier to be comfortable with who they are and where they are at any given point in their lives.
Jackson says his goal for Portraits of Resilience was to create “...a gallery of people who could stand up and say, ‘This is me, and I’m proud of my experience. Not only am I not ashamed by what happened to me, but I’m proud to tell my story and to show that it’s possible to struggle with depression or anxiety, whatever other mental health condition, and reach the light at the end of the tunnel’.”
Brown, Jeffrey, “Portraits of Resilience Destigmatize Depression at One of the World’s Top Universities,” PBS NewsHour, May 14, 2018
Stibich, Mark, “Top 10 Causes of Death for Americans Ages 15 to 24,” Very Well Health, March 2, 2018