Is the drive to overachieve fueling the mental health crisis among students of color?

(Adobe Stock Images)
(Adobe Stock Images)

OPINION: As we see more Black youth succumb to suicide, we must move in radically different ways that prioritize young people’s inherent right to mental health support.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.  

Content warning: This story includes discussions of suicide.

One morning last summer, I had to wake my son up and tell him that his classmate and friend had died by suicide. It was the third such tragedy in a year at his independent school in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, this pattern is not unique to my son’s school. Across the country, youth are facing increasingly more difficult mental health challenges and experiencing suicidal ideations. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey results published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021, 22% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, with a noticeably sharp increase in suicides and attempted suicides among Black youth.

We know that young people are likely to struggle to establish a sense of identity, belonging and purpose during adolescence, but what’s lesser known is that those struggles may not present how you would expect — especially among students of color at independent schools. The classmates that my son lost last year had similar profiles — all-star students with impressive extracurriculars under their belts, leaving countless friends and community members to mourn them in their wake. Two of the three of them were students of color.

Why do I keep mentioning race? Because, while it is true that suicide rates are spiking among all teens, this issue disproportionately impacts youths of color, whether they attend private or public schools. As a rite of passage, high-achieving students of color are often told by their parents and elders that they have to be twice as good to get half as much as their white peers. This truism is well-intentioned and meant to prepare them for systemic discrimination that they will surely face as they enter prestigious institutions. But passing down this cultural knowledge can intensify the pressure youths of color already feel to do well in school, fit in with their social circles, make their families proud and build an impressive resume of extracurriculars.

Add these race-specific pressures to the fact that young people today are navigating a profoundly different world than we did at their age. Digital and social media have plunged us into a culture of immediacy that’s also contributing directly to this mental health crisis. We are in a space and time when kids are bombarded with images, information, and opinions online. Youths of color are told that they are the vanguards of American culture and that they have to dress in the trendiest, most expensive clothes, learn to code-switch depending on their environment and who they are speaking to, become well-versed in mainstream media and expectations, and radiate an aura of academic and familial excellence. At a time when youths of color already have to work harder than their peers to prepare for college because they are navigating predominantly white institutions and relying on authority figures who don’t understand their experiences, they are also in desperate need of guidance on how to navigate and process what they see, read, and hear about themselves online.

These challenges are not insurmountable, but there are no easy solutions. They require all of us to press pause, take a deep breath, and really examine what power and resources we have to support young people. For example, how can educators and administrators center active listening as they interact with youth? And how can families support youth of color who are spending the majority of their waking hours in institutions that were never intended for them? The answers to these questions will vary by school, geography, and student needs, but all of them are rooted in human-centered approaches to education and youth development.

Last year, my organization, Private School Axis, hosted “Our Kids Are Not Okay: A Crucial Conversation on the Mental Health Needs of BIPOC Students in Independent Schools,” a mental health forum featuring students of color at Axis Partner Schools. One of the most common refrains we heard from the youth who imparted their wisdom upon us is that they want and need to be understood by their peers and the adults who navigate their school communities and that they thrive when they have a solid sense of belonging.


We must prioritize hiring more educators, administrators and clinicians of color because diversity of faculty fosters a sense of belonging for all students. Teachers of color are well-positioned to understand and address the unique challenges faced by students of color, who often exhibit signs of mental health stress differently than “textbook” examples based on a largely white population. If we want students of color to be open about what’s going on in their hearts and minds, we must first make them feel safe enough to share those deeply personal struggles. Unfortunately, too many times, the only help available to them comes in the form of culturally incompetent clinicians, making students feel like they have to perform “being fine” so that they don’t draw suspicion, anger, and, ultimately, punishment.

At home, as parents supporting our children’s mental health, we must foster an environment that normalizes open and honest conversations about emotional well-being — and that starts with speaking to our teens about our own emotions and how we navigate our feelings in healthy ways as adults. Encourage your youth to tune into the emotions they experience daily and invite them to share what they’re experiencing with you regularly. As you actively listen to them, remember that encountering emotions across the spectrum is a normal part of the human experience. Validating the breadth of their emotions without feeling the need to fix them is okay. Instead, ask your teen how you can best support them before intervening.

I also want to be very clear that this generation of high schoolers today is more than capable of proposing and implementing their own solutions when they have the space to work together. This is why I’d like to see more schools creating affinity spaces focused on race and the myriad other ways in which students’ identities impact how systems treat them, including mental health conditions and learning disabilities. These groups serve as integrated safe spaces that may be a lifeline for students who need support.

As we see more youth succumb to suicide, all of us — namely educators, parents and school-based mental health professionals — must move in radically different ways that prioritize young people’s inherent right to mental health support. Not just for the ones remaining, but in honor of those we have already lost.

If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433. Help is available 24 hours a day.

Collette Bowers Zinn is a fourth-generation educator, former school administrator for 15 years, and the Founder & Executive Director of Private School Axis, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that aims to bridge the gap between people of color and independent schools. Trained as a litigator, Collette ultimately chose to take the talents she developed in the courtroom into the education system. She is equally passionate about helping students reach their full potential and cultivating dynamic leaders among her fellow educators.

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