Newton has always been close to my heart. After thirteen years in the public schools, I'm pursuing undergraduate studies in English and education at Boston College, only five miles from my home in West Newton. My roots in my hometown are strong, and when I learned the tragic news of the suicides of Karen Douglas and Katie Stack, I was shaken along with the rest of my community.
The loss of a classmate is never easy. During my time at Newton North, the class of 2011 lost two of its own—in 2008, a sudden illness took the life of Nathan Robinson; just before senior year, Adam London passed away in a car accident. Both deaths were shocking and devastating to our student body, but they could be explained and discussed fairly plainly. With a flu shot or a seat belt, similar incidents could be prevented.
Where do we begin to discuss the diseases that ultimately claimed Karen and Katie’s lives? How do we prevent teens from taking their own lives?
Newton is a great place, and I owe so much to the educators who guided my way through the public school system. But there’s no doubt that it can be difficult to grow up here. The students in the Newton Public Schools are all gifted in many ways, but they’re also driven and pushed to be the best. It gets competitive, and the pressure to succeed can be a lot to handle for teenagers.
Remember this 2007 article in the New York Times? Months before I entered Newton North, I pored over it as a guide of sorts, a schematic for what it meant to be a young woman in my community. At age 14, I already felt the pressure to be a “perfect Newton girl”, and throughout high school, I struggled. I wasn’t popular, I didn’t get the best grades, I wasn’t the star of anything. My feelings of inadequacy often led me to some dark places where it was hard to see the way out.
I can look back on it now and realize how pointless some of those high school pressures were. I was never “perfect”, but I still made it—two years out from Newton North, I’m studying the subjects I’ve always loved at the university of my dreams, and the future has never looked brighter. Even though it took a long time to shake off the demons that plagued me as a teenager, they’re behind me now.
I made it, but the fact is that there are so many high school students who are in the same place I was at their age. What I see as a trivial thing of the past is a stark reality for them. They’re scared, stressed, out of control; unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel or a way out. But there is a way, and finding it can start with a simple “it’s going to be okay”. Someone needs to say it. It’s okay to be imperfect or to feel afraid at times. Life isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. The sun will still rise tomorrow even if you fail today, so rise with it.
Ever since my days as a bookish first-grader at Burr School, I’ve wanted to be a teacher, but in recent years, I’ve doubted myself. As someone who struggled for so long as a teenager, I didn’t see myself as a capable role model for young people. But now I have the opposite view: I can be an example of someone who came out on top of depression, who found the light, who made her life worth living in spite of darkness. Now, I’ve never been surer about my intended career path.
My advice to students who are having a tough time is just to hang in there. Depression can make it hard to see all the good that life has to offer, but try your hardest to count your blessings. Find what you love and do it with enthusiasm and excellence, whether it’s academic or athletic or just something fun. Surround yourself with loving and supportive people, and count your worth in every little way you can. Set goals and chase them relentlessly. Know that there are people who want you to succeed, however it is you define success. High school is not the end-all be-all of the universe. It gets better. Trust me, I know.
While we’ll never know what exactly drove Karen and Katie to take their lives earlier this month, it couldn’t be more clear after the events of this month that there needs to be a change. Depression and mental health are very real issues with a harsh stigma on them, and it’s time to break down the walls so struggling students can reach out for the help they need. I know for a fact that the educators of the Newton Public Schools are more than capable of leading the charge in changing the way mental health issues are addressed, and I hope they take up that challenge.