“Success” & Mental Health


 “Success” & Mental Health

Crumpled papers, droopy eyelids, and insane amounts of caffeinated green tea. These were the factors I once thought made up the ingredients for ultimate success, which at the time consisted of a transcript of A’s and strong standardized test scores.

                                                                                                                         -- K. L. S. (Northgate High School)


Once I reached high school, the pressure came crashing down. I had to take SAT classes, I had to take AP classes, I had to show leadership, play music, play sports, do community service, and speak another language. But I had to be the BEST at all of these, so I could beat out all the other kids and get into the best college and get all the best scholarships and get the best job that would give me the best life so I could show the world that I had the best mom who raised the best kid. … My self-esteem and confidence were low. …. My worry grew to an extreme level, which made me prone to anxiety attacks when I thought of and feared all the things I had to do. …

                                                                                                                         -- M. Y. (Silver Creek High School)


The pressure to be perfect at school began to plague my rationality a year ago. Students at my school overloaded themselves with five to six AP classes and would talk down to those who didn’t. My fear of being looked down upon by my peers, by myself, drove me to doing the same. For months I would barely sleep at night, either from staying up to study or the relentless anxiety about failing. I felt behind in everything I was committed to … I was desperate to escape from the responsibilities of maintaining a perfect life.

                                                                                                                     -- L. K. (Dougherty Valley High School)


             Every night between March 30 and April 15, 2014, I read while being deeply touched by essays from Juniors and Seniors from San Francisco Bay Area high schools as they answer the question “How does your personal definition of success affect your mental health?” They are participants of Culture to Culture Foundations’ second annual essay contest to raise mental health awareness among teenagers.  I am humbled and honored to be one of five judges for this project.          


            At the inspirational Culture to Culture Foundation Essay Contest in 2013, 127 entries on “the number one mental health issue affecting high school students” opened our community’s eyes on what our teenagers’ challenges are from their own perspectives.  More than half of those essays discussed how comparison with peers and reaching for goals set by social norm had added to, if not resulted into, anxiety, depression, eating disorder and other mental health difficulties.  How does that happen?  What could we do to help?


            Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Mr. and Mrs. Jeff and Shiao Chien Lee and other supporters, the Culture to Culture Foundation (C to C) is able to do another Mental Health Awareness Essay Contest for juniors and seniors in high school this spring.  Armed with last contest’s positive impact, the C to C received endorsement from the State Superintendent Office, Superintendents of Fremont and San Ramon Valley Unified School District as well as the famed Challenge Success from Stanford University.   Thanks to our community’s support, 242 students from 78 high schools throughout the Bay Area and beyond submitted their essays within three months.


           Reviewing the entries alongside four other judges, I was touched and inspired by our teenagers’ heart-felt sharing in each and every essay.  As an educator and school psychologist, this topic is particularly dear to my heart as I have been studying and presenting on the “true success in education” for different schools over the past three years. Our community, the Silicon Valley with large percentage of highly educated parents, is well known for our pride in good education in and outside of schools.  However, we’ve suffered several heartbreaking losses of high achieving students over the past five years.  Those are echoed by sad news from elite universities throughout our country.  For instance, Harvard Crimson found that, counting enrolled undergraduates who committed suicide either on or off campus, Harvard’s suicide rate is 18.18 per 100,000, which is significantly higher than the average for college students (6.18 per 100,000 in a 2009-2010 nationwide study conducted by a University of Virginia researcher).   That rate increases to 24.24 per 100,000 when students who committed suicide while taking a leave of absence are included.  And the list goes on in Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, and other prestigious colleges.  Those are our cream of the crop, decorated with all signs of “success” such as perfect transcript, trophies and awards from all fields, leadership roles, etc. 


What is wrong with this picture? 


What is missing in our education?


How did our grade education fail to prepare those “successful students” for the challenges in college and beyond? 


Thanks to our 242 brave participants, we were able to experience what they go through in high schools.  They opened their hearts and opened our eyes.  Many vividly documented how pressure from family and peers shaped their personal definition of “success” as they began forming their beliefs about themselves and the world around them when freshman year started.


Unfortunately, our vision of success has been marred by societal pressure, which dictates that we must achieve stellar grades and maintain a thriving social life.”

                                                                                                                                 -- N. N. (Washington High School)


Those concerns are echoed through findings from local as well as national surveys for our teenagers. 


According to Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences in 2009, 62% of the nearly 5,000 surveyed high school students in the Bay Area said that they always or almost always work hard in school, but only 10% always or almost always enjoy schoolwork.  Furthermore, 54% of female and 32% of male students reported three or more symptoms of physical stress in the past month.

            According to National Sleep Foundation (2006), teens need 9.25 hours of sleep each night but 80% of teens don’t get the recommended amount of sleep.

            According to Josephson Institute of Ethics’ report card on American youth’s values and actions, 59% of teenagers said that they had cheated on a test during the last year; 34% had done it more than twice; 1 in 3 admitted having used the internet to plagiarize an assignment. (Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, 2010).

            According to Partnership attitude tracking study by Partnership for a Drug-Free America (2008), 73% of students listed academic stress as their number one reason for using drugs while only 7 % of parents believe teens might use drugs to deal with stress.


            The ironic fact is that the emphasis on “strong or perfect school grades” reported in most of the essay entries has no standing among studies on “success.”  Instead, characteristics such as resilience, self-motivation, goal-oriented, passion, perseverance, willing to take risks, etc. are repeated in various studies on “successful people.”  (See references.) 


In the book, Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, Dr. Karen Arnold followed the progress of 81 Illinois high school valedictorians over 14 years to study the nature of academic success, its costs and rewards, and its effects on career and personal life. She found that those with perfect grades “obey rules, work hard and like learning, but they're not the mold breakers" because "they've never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence.”


Did we ignite our children’s passion, the fuel for their motivation and the natural booster for mental health?


I’m inspired to see how many contestants pinpointed how personal definition of success impacts their mental health so significantly.


“I couldn’t properly count the amount of times I questioned how I had gotten to this point (suicide attempt). … I knew that there was a common denominator to it all: my personal fear of failure. ”

                                                                                                               -- L. K. (Dougherty Valley High School)

              I’m grateful for the reminder.


             Isn’t the courage to take risks the foundation where our great country’s success is built upon?


Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a Clinical Psychologist, distinguished between “healthy” and “unhealthy” perfectionism in The Perfectionist's Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes (2011).  The difference is not on the “high expectations” but our approach to obtain the goal as well as our reaction when things are not going well. 


While our schools pass on book knowledge, did we teach our children life lessons such as frustration tolerance, coping skills with anxiety, and sense of gratitude?


Did we discuss that everyone is different and judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree is not logical?


Did we show them that life is not perfect and how to deal with “imperfection” and “setback” is as important as algebra equations?


Did we emphasize that social and communication skills are as important as economic theories?


Did we help them link the knowledge taught in class to applications in life to promote their enthusiasm in learning for the life time?


            Teenager years are full of wonders, trials and errors as they try to understand themselves and the world around, discover who they are and what they can or cannot do before they leave home for more independence. I’m encouraged to see how many contestants were able to find out that “success” does not exist without taking care of their mental health. With their family and communities’ help, many found a balance between the two after developing more awareness of the significance of mental health.


My personal definition of success used to be a heavy burden on my mental health. With the help of my supportive family and friends, I am able to realize the true meaning of success. To me, success is anything that gives me happiness and pride in who I am. Taking care of myself is a necessity for my wellbeing. Enjoying life is success. I will be sure to keep this healthy vision of success for years to come.”                                              

                                                                                                                              -- K. L. S. (Northgate High School)


  In the beginning of my high school experience, success dictated my mental health. However, after my experiences, my mental health now dictates my success. I no longer look at success as striving to be the best, but instead, I look at what makes me happy. … If I can be happy through life’s experiences, I have succeeded. ”                                                             

                                                                                                                --L. F. (Dozier-Libbey Medical High School)


I used to think that reaching my goal is the way I define success. However, this method of defining success became discouraging when I failed to reach my goals. As a result, I decided to define success as the strength to continue to do my best under circumstances where I am least comfortable. This definition allows me to evaluate my performance depending on different situations. In addition, this flexibility enables me to maintain a positive mindset throughout my life.

                                                                                                                                  -- C. M. C. (Lowell High School)


There is no best and there never will be; the standards by which I had been measuring my worth are boundaries that cannot contain all that I am. I am not limited to my imperfect GPA or standardized test scores or the number of trophies and certificates that I own. I am not defined by how many people I rank above or how many problems I solved incorrectly on my latest math test. I am so much more than a comparison to others.”                                               

                                                                                                                                      -- C. R. (Alhambra High School)


So I’m trying to change. Instead of waiting for my mom to be happy and compliment how much I’ve accomplished, I’m trying to do so myself. Instead of seeing my goal as “pleasing Mom”, I’m trying to find my own goals and passions in life. I want to change my personal definition of success to “being happy”. It’s really difficult, trying to remind myself that my life is not all about reaching my mom’s expectations. But on the bright side, at least I have realized it. Moving my life’s spotlight from my mom to me is a slow work in progress, but it’s getting somewhere. … And if my definition of success now is building a healthy, happy world, I have to start by building a healthy, happy “me” first.”

                                                                                                                               -- M. Y. (Silver Creek High School)


 Success is seeing the world through my own eyes, not someone else’s camera lens. … I just want to find myself, fix myself. … We live too much in the future, in the bodies of our future selves, because our present selves just aren’t good enough. … But what if I just let it all go? What if I was happy with Present Me and Past Me wasn’t someone to regret, but someone to admire?  … My dreams are noble, my hard work admirable, my efforts laudable, but my sanity and love for myself at every moment of every day is crucial.”        

                                                                                                                                  -- G. M. (Monta Vista High School)


“The standards of success at my school have produced a culture of guilt and inadequacy among students. I know for a fact I am not its only victim. Especially since the beginning of my junior year I have felt that everything that I am, everything that I believe in, has been reduced to meaningless numbers on a piece of paper. I am an advocate for changing this culture. While I managed to get out and get myself help, I am frightened that others may not be so lucky.”                          

                                                                                                                             -- L. K. (Dougherty Valley High School)


Challenge Success at Stanford University has listed strategies for families to help their children find true success (2009).  What they have recommended, such as “to ease performance pressure; to avoid over-scheduling; to find their passion; to maintain down time and family time,” are echoed in many contestants’ reflections.


The definition of success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose, and my aim was to lead a full, happy, varied life. Overwhelming myself with numerous activities did nothing but make me miss little points in my life, like relaxing, playing with my siblings, or cultivating a healthy relationship with my mom. I realized that I could not be triumphant if I continued on the destructive and engulfing path I had set myself on. When working towards my goals I should be content and driven, and when I reach them, I should celebrate instead of disregarding it and focusing on my next checkpoint. I began to realize that I am allowed to have small triumphs count on my bigger path to leading a successful life.”

                                                                                                                                -- E. M. (Homestead High School)


Mental health generally refers to "a state of well-being which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community" (WHO). 


Isn’t that what we wish for all of our younger generations? 


Culture to Culture Foundation (C to C), a nonprofit organization, has been working tirelessly to raise awareness for the importance of mental health and provide better access to culturally competent mental health services.  In the past, C to C has organized many mental health workshops and given scholarships for adults.  We are very grateful that Mrs. Chia Chia Chien, founder of C to C, recognized the growing needs among our younger generations and extended the scholarship to high school students in 2013. 


Thanks again to the C to C’s Mental Health Awareness Essay Contest, we have the opportunity getting to know our younger generations more through their own voices. While we are relieved to see that, with support from family and friends, many teenagers grow and learn from their struggles during the four years in high school, there are also many others who identified the negative impact of an unhealthy definition of “success” but continued to be confused about how to overcome it.  We pray that more teenagers could have an opportunity to read those essays, learn from their peers’ experiences and lessons, recognize the importance of mental health and grow along their journey to true “success.”


Research conducted by Mental Health America found that the more educated the population, the lower the percentage of reported unmet mental healthcare needs, the better the state’s depression status. In addition, the more generous a state’s mental health parity coverage, the greater the number of people in the population that receive mental health services.  May our community leaders read those essays and devote more resources to parent education, Positive Psychology classes and other productive approaches to build a more supportive environment for our teenagers’ mental health.  For instance, Hopkins Junior High in Fremont started Parents’ Night on “Authentic Success” since 2011, which has been well received by the local community.


We understand that we still have a lot more to improve on mental health care for teenagers.  However, like one old Chinese proverb states: "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  The ultimate goal for this essay contest is to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in high school students.  It is C to C’s hope that those seeds of awareness will grow into a forest of community support to our teenagers’ mental health development in the near future.




The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success (Da Capo Press, 2010).

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (Ballantine Books, NY, 2006).

Outliers: The Story of Success. (Little, Brown and Company, NY, 2008).

The Talent Code. (Bantam Books, 2009)

Mental Health Issues Affecting High School Students in the Bay Area. http://overseaswindow.com/node/10005













感谢 Sujuan 真诚的分享。很同意您的体会,我也从来都是告诉自己工作过的高中生:得全A是不正常的,因为正常的大脑都是在发育上有长有短;再说将来在工作岗位上一枝独秀就可以了,没有谁会要求你面面俱到,文理双全。上个月在国内的教育网站上看到数据:需要 mental health service 的学龄儿童和青少年的比例已上升至十分之一。湾区的比例也不小,只是因为文化中对精神健康需要的偏见,真正接受治疗的只有需要的孩子的四分之一。家长的重视对孩子的身心健康真得很重要,同样的学校同样的压力下,孩子的心态能天壤之别,和家庭的氛围和家教的侧重点不无关系。

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