Ariane Herrera Cardenas has always placed high expectations on herself, even in middle school, and the stakes have only increased as she prepares to graduate from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College in about two weeks.
In the fall, the 18-year-old will become the first in her family to go to college and the burden to succeed is weighing on her. As a senior Ariane decided she needed to save money for college so she started working part-time at Home Depot.
“The decisions I have to make right now are important for me to set an example for my siblings,” she said.
She is not alone in her worries about the future. Colorado teens have faced heightened pressure to succeed academically and in extracurricular activities, such as sports, for more than a decade. Now, they’re coming of age as the United States emerges from the worst pandemic in a century and are feeling that pressure even more than before, according to teenagers and mental health experts.
Teens told The Denver Post that anything less than perfection in school or extracurriculars can feel like a failure that will affect them into adulthood.
“I have friends that cry over it,” Jolette Oseguera Martinez, a junior at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School. “They cry because of their grades and they don’t think they’re going to succeed.”
The pandemic has added to the stress teenagers feel as for more than two years they have faced persistent trauma, whether it’s through losing a loved one to COVID-19 or financial, food, or housing insecurity, Jenna Glover, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
They’ve missed major milestones, like prom, that typically make up the American high school experience.
“Kids really still are not doing well and are having residual effects from the amount of stress they are experiencing over the last two years,” Glover said.
While teenagers welcomed the return to in-person classes in the fall, the transition hasn’t always been easy.
They have shorter attention spans than they used to but are facing higher academic workloads as teachers try to catch them up. Teens developed different study habits as remote-learning moved quizzes and tests to computers instead of using paper and pens and they were given more time to complete assignments.
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Now back in the classroom, some teachers are helping students adjust by letting them use notes on their quizzes and exams. This has helped some students become more productive and attentive in a class by taking better notes, said Ariane, the senior at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College said.
“They know we lost our study skills,” she said.
Before the pandemic, teachers might give students one quiz a week and one test a month. Now, the workload has doubled so there are two quizzes a week on top of all of their other assignments, Ariane said.
The increased workloads can be exhausting and it’s easier for teens to feel like they are falling behind if they miss even one day of school or zone out during a lesson, they said.
“It’s more stressful even if the teachers are trying to make it less stressful,” said Sam Charney, a sophomore at Denver School of the Arts.
Outside of the classroom teens had to recreate friendships and relearn how to socialize with classmates when they returned to school in person. Even something as simple as figuring out how to dress in the latest fashion caused more pressure after months of remote learning, they said.
The rising cost of living is also affecting teenagers. Some like Jolette and Ariane are worried about the cost of college. Others got jobs to help their parents afford rent and pay bills.
“Not many teachers were understanding we came from a different habit of being isolated at home,” Ariane said.
Sam Charney, 15, sits in Denver School of the Arts’ theater on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
“You have to be the very best of the best”
More teenagers died from overdoses last year than in any year since 2000 and mental health professionals have reported an increase in demand for counseling and in-patient treatment during the pandemic, with Children’s Hospital Colorado declaring a pediatric mental health “state of emergency” in 2021.
Suicides among people ages 10 to 18 have not substantially increased during the pandemic. At least 70 people in the age group died by suicide last year, which is down from 87 deaths in 2020 and 75 deaths in 2019, according to provisional death-certificate data from the Colorado health department.
Suicide is complicated and multiple factors lead a person to consider harming themselves. Anxiety and depression are risk factors for suicide, but having a mental illness does not mean a person will harm themselves, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Teenagers’ mental well-being has worsened over the past decade for multiple reasons, including the constant onslaught of news about war, financial instability, and other events, that have become harder to escape with social media platforms and smartphones, Glover said.
The rise of social media has come with both positive and negative implications for teens’ mental health, she said. It can connect teenagers to friends and other supports, but it has also attributed to a rise in adolescents comparing themselves to others and has replaced behaviors, such as youth sports, that in the previously built resiliency in children, Glover said.
Social media can make life look easy like it’s not hard to be successful because people look happy all the time, Ariane said.
There were benefits to being online more during the pandemic. Jolette found a space that was friendly to people in the LGBTQ community, whereas at school she hears her peers using derogatory slurs.
Parents are also putting more pressure on teenagers to perform well in school, participate in ultra-competitive sports, have summer internships, and participate in political activism so that they can stand out on their college applications, Glover said.
The focus has become so much about outcomes, so much about getting “As”, that parents and teachers aren’t teaching the lessons that can come from simply working towards a goal. This in return is setting teenagers up to think that they either succeed at something or are a failure, Glover said.
“It’s an overwhelming amount of pressure that’s placed on them,” she said, adding, “Not only is there that culture to succeed but you have to be the very best of the best.”
“I needed to feel like someone was proud of me”
The pressure to be at the top of the class is especially felt by children of immigrants, even when it’s not coming directly from their parents, Jolette, the junior at Denver Collegiate High School, said.
“Your parents come here to have a better life for you,” she said, adding, “You see them working every day, going through so much (expletive) sometimes just to make sure you have the stuff you need or want. It pushed me to continue working and being the best (I) can for them.”
As a junior, Jolette, who has anxiety, is making decisions about her future, such as what advanced-placement classes to take, what scholarships to apply for, and where she wants to go to college.
The pressure to succeed academically and in extracurriculars is one of the leading risk factors for suicide among adolescents as the expectations placed on them are often “unrealistic” and they aren’t taught how to cope in healthy ways, according to a 2019 report by the Colorado Attorney General’s office.
Overall, American teenagers have been experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression even before the pandemic. And in 2019, 61% of teens participating in a Pew Research Center study said they felt a lot of pressure to get good grades so that they succeed as adults.
“School repeats how much grades are going to make you or break you,” Jolette said.
Sam Charney, 15, is pictured on May 3, 2022.
During the pandemic, Sam, the sophomore at Denver School of the Arts, made the jump from middle school to high school and when they returned in person there were new students that they had never met before.
The 15-year-old is also starting to think about college and their future, which presents its own unique type of stress as Sam is a theater student, which can make them feel as though they are “always auditioning.”
“In theater, there’s pressure to perform the best and we’re always being watched by industry professionals and that could always impact our career,” Sam said.
Sam can relax more in their regular academic classes, but sometimes has test anxiety, which can make them forget the material or second-guess themselves.
There’s a “huge emphasis on (being) perfect when it’s not possible” and when there should be more understanding that students may not always perform their best depending on what’s going on in their lives at that moment, Sam said.
“We just need to stop emphasizing that grades are the only important thing,” they said.
Ariane, the senior, said the pandemic made her look closely at why she sets such high expectations for herself, where the pressure to be the perfect student came from, and learning “to be more loving to myself.”
“It brought out a lot of mental healing that I needed to do,” she said, adding, “I realized that there was some level of anxiety in me, a level of sadness that I had to fix and I needed to feel like someone was proud of me.”