Education: Tragedy of the Stepford children

In wealthy US suburbs, the pressure to achieve is driving students to suicide. Anne-Marie Sapsted is glad to be bringing her children back to Britain
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The Independent Online
Seventeen-year old Sam Hingston, a handsome all-American boy with the world at his feet, has become nothing more than a statistic. At three o'clock one morning in late March, he locked himself in the family bathroom at his Connecticut home, swallowed petrol from a squash bottle he had found in the garage, doused himself with the fuel and struck a match setting himself ablaze. Before his frantic parents could break down the door to get to him, most of his body was covered in third-degree burns. He was airlifted to a special burns unit, but died that evening.

Sam's death was all the more shocking because he came not from a broken home in a city ghetto, but from a privileged family living in one of America's most affluent areas. He was popular, well-mannered, a top student, captain of the football and wrestling teams and had already gained a place at the prestigious Boston University. No one in his family, not his twin sister nor even his friends, had any idea what had sparked this terrible act.

We moved to Connecticut three years ago, to Ridgefield (proudly holding the title of Number One town in the area and said to be the model town for the film the Stepford Wives), and the town next door to where Sam Hingston killed himself. Within months, we were horrified to hear of a girl at the local school committing suicide. Looking back, you can see that she was Sam Hingston's mirror image; she was popular, a successful student, captain of sports teams, a girl of the same age with a golden future. One Sunday afternoon her father found her hanged from a tree in the family's back garden.

Each year since we arrived there has been a similar death. However, the number of attempted suicides is even more frightening. At one point our eldest son, then 16, and our daughter, then 13, both had close friends committed to a local psychiatric unit after serious suicide bids.

As we have learned, there are enormous pressures here which were not present in the rural England we left behind. Ridgefield is part of Fairfield County which, along with Los Angeles, is the most affluent area of America. The average per capita income is $53,396 (more than pounds 35,000) - $23,093 (more than pounds 15,000) above the state average and more than twice the national average. According to the last national census, about one in six families in the town earn more than $150,000 a year (more than pounds 100,000). The average house price is around $450,000 (pounds 300,000). This is a successful town that expects its children to be successful as well.

The drive for achievement begins very early. Our youngest son, then eight, arrived here from a thriving but small East Sussex village primary school. Though identified as having a learning difficulty, he was bright, worked hard, enjoyed school and we had been happy with his progress in England. His introduction to the American state system was traumatic. Tested according to state standards within his first fortnight and with no allowances made for either his learning disability or his newness to the system, he was found to be seriously wanting.

On top of this, he found himself struggling with up to an hour's homework each night, formal tests in every area of his schoolwork each week, and a marking regime which means that every single piece of work is graded out of 100 from A to D and anything under 65 scores F for fail. There are four marking periods in every school year, with parents receiving written reports at the end of each one. Over and over we were told this was a town where parents had high academic expectations of their children.

Three years after we first came here, I still find myself meeting his teachers to try to make them understand that what we as parents expect from our son is that he try his best and work hard, and that if that effort does not result in an A every time, then it is not the end of the world. Two weeks ago we heard about a little girl in town of my son's age who had tried to hang herself because of her school grades.

Our now 15-year-old daughter has managed to cope with the system well. She enjoys competition. Our eldest son, soon to be 18 - a bright but unmotivated student - has fared less well. Unlike his classmates, his choices in both his school and personal life have not been geared towards producing an acceptable CV for the last five years. This means not only academic achievement but also getting into a sports team (preferably in more than one sport), church activities and community service of some sort, and all are arranged with the CV in mind. From the moment the children enter high school at 14, the pressure is on.

In fact, they are in training even earlier. Trying to arrange for a friend to come and play with our youngest son proved difficult when we first arrived. Mothers would consult the friend's "schedule" and discover the first "window" in it was Tuesday week because of the amount of after-school activities the child of eight was doing.

Our local newspaper recently published an anonymous letter from a student at the high school who signed herself merely "pretty little rich girl". In it, she described her sadness and despair, eating problems and a suicide attempt, while admitting that her life was, on the face of it, one of privilege, promise and success.

At school my son attended a psychology class where the teacher read out the girl's letter and asked for a response. Within minutes, the first of what turned out to be more than half the class - boys and girls - sobbed as they told of their empathy with her. Several said they had attempted suicide, most admitted having felt suicidal. Apparently the teacher's only response was to let these outpourings continue until the end of class.

I asked my son why he thought there was so much despair. He told me that the great difference between Ridgefield and the community we came from in rural East Sussex was that parents here mapped out their ambitions for their children at a very early age. They have an idea of who and what their children are going to be and they work single-mindedly towards it. They are mostly high-achieving professionals themselves, and expect their children to be so too. According to my son, they do not talk to their children and do not know who they are or what they dream of. Their children do not know how to talk to them in return.

Our older two are in the minority among their friends. Their bedrooms are not equipped with state-of-the-art hi-fi systems, TVs, videos, games systems, a computer and their own personal telephone line. One boy we know, who has a suite of rooms at the bottom of the house, communicates with his parents via an intercom system.

We eat meals as a family most evenings, but Sunday dinner eaten together round a table is sacrosanct. Their American friends gladly join us and tell us family get-togethers of this kind happen rarely because everyone is too busy. There seems to be a complete failure by parents and teachers to understand that, instead of having time to relax and enjoy life, many children are under constant pressure to improve their academic performance, to get into the right college, to get better grades, to be "successful".

On the same day that Sam Hingston killed himself, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) launched a new public service campaign on youth suicide prevention. It highlighted a study, published in the supplement to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, which showed that direct, confidential screening of high-school students for risk factors has proven effective in identifying at-risk teens whose problems may otherwise be hidden. The AFSP research also found that widely used methods such as crisis hotlines, suicide education in schools and other programmes designed to help parents, teachers or teenagers to recognise depression in others, do not work. This is because many adolescents who are at risk do not have symptoms that are noticeable to others. Yet the statistics show the problem is mushrooming.

The suicide rate for white males aged 15 to 24 has tripled since 1950, while for white females of the same age, it has more than doubled. The rate for black males of this age is even more shocking, having risen by two-thirds in only 15 years.

An estimated 500,000 teenagers try to kill themselves every year and 5,000 succeed. Those at highest risk are boys aged 17 to 19 who are depressed and drink heavily.

Teenage suicide attempts are usually triggered by a particular incident, such as a parent's death, divorce, a break-up with a girlfriend/boyfriend, moving home, failure in sports or failure to get into a chosen university.

In a research project supported by the Centres for Disease Control, more than 2,000 students from eight high schools in the metropolitan area of New York completed a new screening test. Around 10 per cent of them were found to be in need of referral to a mental health professional for further evaluation or treatment. Fewer than 20 per cent of the students who reported severe symptoms of depression or who had made suicide attempts were known to have problems of this kind by a responsible adult.

Meanwhile, in a small town in Connecticut, crisis counsellors told Sam Hingston's classmates that the Sam they knew was not the Sam who ended his life in such a violent way. The principal said that if she'd had a list of people least likely to suffer this fate, Sam would have been on it.

We are packing up and leaving this summer, with education heading our reasons for doing so.

We do not want to forget that balance, moderation and giving our children a choice in what they do will help them lead a happier life. At a British comprehensive they have a better chance of getting that.