Quick disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and nothing qualifies me to write this besides my personal experience as a teen at LAHS.
In recent years, I have heard a few different discussions regarding the high school in my town (Los Alamos High School). Very recently, I saw a thread on a local Facebook page that voiced concerns that our schools are only worried about student achievement/grades, instead of the mental health and wellbeing of the students. Ever since I was a student there myself, I have heard that only “geniuses” can succeed at LAHS and if you don’t fit in, you would fall through the cracks.
I graduated from LAHS in 2005. Per my SAT scores, I am of average intelligence (and if you look at my ACT scores, I’m below average) but I did very well at LAHS. I enjoyed high school and, overall, my experience was good. I know I had a few teachers who seemed unconcerned about me or whom I didn’t particularly click with, but I also know there were teachers whose doors were always open. I had to study hard, but I never felt an unmanageable amount of pressure. When I got to college, I felt academically prepared and I remember thinking that all the hype about the “excellent” Los Alamos Schools was true.
On several occasions, I have seen or heard former students pinpoint LAHS as the main reason for their failure to thrive as adults (their words, not mine). More worrisome, I have heard that teenagers at LAHS seem to commit suicide at a higher rate than “normal.” I’ve heard it too many times to ignore, but my first instinct is to dismiss these claims outright because I loved LAHS. How could it be that I had a good experience at the same school that is apparently a driving factor for kids to commit suicide?
The thing is a lot of different people have been sounding alarms about LAHS in the years since I graduated. I finally realized that just because my personal experience was positive doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Because my girls will be attending these schools in the future, I decided to try and research this for myself. After all, who actually cares about my daughter’s GPA if she hates herself?
I went to the CDC website to try to substantiate the most troublesome claim that Los Alamos has a high teen suicide rate. There is a nifty query tool on the website (Click Here) where you can run suicide statistics by county and age range; however, for privacy reasons, statistics based on 20 or fewer deaths are suppressed. Because Los Alamos only has approx. 18,000 residents, I cannot isolate the actual data for the county for teenagers. For the entire state of New Mexico, though, the suicide rate for ages 13-19 for years 2008 – 2014 is more than twice the national average. That’s not a good statistic.
I also found a “Los Alamos County Community Health Profile” report online (Click Here) and it paints a pretty sparkly picture of Los Alamos. According to the profile, Los Alamos residents make a lot of money, rarely smoke, and our teenage birth rate is virtually zero. Oh and this is an actual quote from the report pertaining to homelessness: “According to the 2013 NM Point in Time Survey, In Los Alamos County no people experiencing homelessness were found.” Wowee. But I digress…. When I finally got to the county suicide information on page 24, it shows suicide rates for the county to be lower than the state average, but I can’t really tell the age range used to populate the graph. I wonder if information pertaining to minors available for a “Community Health Profile” like this one? Long story short, I don’t know how much I trust this information.
In the end, I, as a private citizen, am unable to tell (via online research) if the teen suicide rate is in fact high for Los Alamos County. I do know that in a small town, word spreads fast and we all hear about everything, particularly underage deaths. It’s possible that the small town factor makes the rate seem high. Or maybe the rate is high. Even if I had been able to find actual numbers, I probably would have further questions about causation versus correlation, etc.
Mental illness is very complicated and I think it’s a mistake to pin the responsibility on our schools. I know that statistics don’t really matter when it happens to you and I cannot think of a more heartbreaking scenario than a child’s suicide. I sincerely hope that if a teacher observes something troubling involving my child, he would contact me or otherwise attempt to help my child. Additionally, I hope that if we identified something at home, the school would work with us to try and fix it. I cannot say for certain that that would happen at LAHS or at any school, but I hope it would. According the CDC, “[suicide] prevention occurs at all levels of society—from the individual, family, and community levels to the broader social environment.” Our schools cannot do it alone, that’s for sure.