Mental health in Cherry Creek School District

‘Pressure to succeed, be perfect’ a strain on teens

High intelligence, large-school culture part of conversation in student well-being

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When Aidan Allis started to feel that too many students experience isolation at Cherry Creek High School, the senior took action.

“I’m third-generation here — my nana and papa and my mom went to Cherry Creek,” Allis said. “So I have a kind of emotional attachment to the school, and so does my family. And when I see something I don’t like, I want to change it.”

Allis felt a lack of community at Creek, so he set up a meeting with the school’s principal, Ryan Silva, to push for change. The result was a schoolwide assembly to stand against suicide and come closer together.

It came on the heels of the second Cherry Creek High student dying by suicide in less than two months, near the end of March.

“One of my main concerns with Creek is there are a lot of cliques there,” said Allis, who worked with students and administration to buy wristbands for the school and told them to wear Creek colors to the assembly.

They made the effort “to kind of unify and show that your identity isn’t in what group you belong to,” Allis said. “You’re a Creek student — we’re a family in that sense.”

A message like that can get lost in the shuffle of a sprawling district that includes about 55,000 students. The populations at Cherry Creek School District’s high schools amount to 2,000 at the smallest schools, with Cherry Creek High clocking in at 3,600.

“I think it is a challenge,” said Eric Zimmerman, one of the district’s six mental health coordinators. “I think it’s real difficult for teachers to build those relationships, deeper relationships, with kids.”

Some students feel invisible or lost in such large student bodies, said Zimmerman, whose position helps oversee mental health in the Grandview High School area.

“Those kids who don’t fit into a certain category or just can’t find that friend group, they feel disconnected,” Zimmerman said.

Mental health staff try to steer those students toward positive outlets and activities, said Zimmerman, who has spent 14 years in the district and is a school psychologist. Staff also encourage adults and other students to say hello if they see kids sitting by themselves.

Rick Padilla, the father of Cherry Creek freshman Jack Padilla, who died by suicide in February, said school culture needs to change.

“The focus can’t be on the top athletes, the win-at-all-costs (mentality), because some of these kids don’t make the team,” Padilla said. Instead, the community also needs to shine a light on kids who don’t excel at athletics or academics, he continued.

Sources of pressure

Cherry Creek High can give off a “suck it up, buttercup” attitude, said Allis, a former football player.

“Because of the rigorous courses people take, (feelings are) kind of tucked under the table because you don’t always have time for that emotion,” Allis said. “Which isn’t always a bad thing — homework and tests are welcome distractions.” But, he said, the focus on work can be stressful.

The district’s high-achieving environment — academically and athletically — could have a bearing on students’ mental health, but that pressure might not necessarily come from schools themselves, Zimmerman said.

“There’s also family pressure, striving to get scholarships and what have you,” Zimmerman said, adding that kids compare themselves to others. “And there are some high-achieving kids to compare themselves to. I think there are issues between the haves and the have-nots. Our buildings are pretty diverse, and there are kids on the spectrum in terms of financial resources, family resources.”

Local, publicized suicide deaths in roughly the past year have included students in the Eaglecrest, Grandview and Cherry Creek high school areas — along with students from Arapahoe High School in Littleton Public Schools — comprising the Greenwood Village, Centennial and south Aurora regions, which are generally affluent compared to other stretches of metro Denver.

MORE: Littleton Public Schools also working to find solutions on suicide

But Tony Poole, a Cherry Creek district assistant superintendent, said high intelligence is a common theme among students who have recently died by suicide.

“I don’t think they’re all wealthy by any means, but they are highly intelligent,” Poole said.

The district this year is examining how to better take care of that demographic. “These students tend to have more anxiety,” Poole added.

“All the way through elementary and middle school, they’ve done really well, and they hit high school and they have some challenges — that is a shock to the system,” said Zimmerman, speaking generally about highly intelligent students.

Despite the suicide deaths in the south Denver metro area, suicide rates tend to be higher in more rural areas of Colorado, said Steve Nederveld, one of two new mental health directors for the Cherry Creek district. And Sarah Brummett, director of the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention, said there could be factors that make certain deaths more likely to be covered by media and that lower-income communities have their own obstacles that can bear on mental health.

“In affluent communities, stressors are different than stressors in lower socioeconomic communities,” Brummett said. “Not that there’s an absence of stressors in either one — just that they look different.”

Students in higher-achieving school districts nationwide sound similar notes, Brummett said.

“There’s a lot of pressure on them in those communities to succeed and be perfect,” Brummett said. “And there’s that social perception that everyone else is perfect: ‘If I’m struggling, what’s wrong with me?’ ”

‘Just be a kid’

Jackson Langford, an Eaglecrest student who died by suicide this spring, found a lack of purpose when thinking about his future, according to his mother.

“So he felt odd — people didn’t understand him,” Olivia Langford said. He “wasn’t interested in the daily grind, rat-race kind of thing.”

Suicide is complex and almost always has multiple causes, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Normalizing the idea that kids don’t have to be perfect or have their future figured out could help people like Jackson, she said, but “that’s something that’s systemic — you can’t just put up a poster at the school.”

Schools often receive blame for youth suicides, and that’s a natural human reaction, Brummett said.

“But when it comes to suicide, it’s not just a school issue — it’s a community issue. Placing the blame and onus on schools is unfair” and unrealistic, Brummett said, because schools have so many problems to try to address.

“The community informs the school climate and vice versa,” Brummett said.

Langford wondered if identifying students as “gifted and talented” — a distinction based on cognitive testing — later in their school careers, rather than only when they’re younger, could help them. Her son took Advanced Placement classes but wasn’t identified as gifted, said Langford, who works in gifted education and teaches third grade in Denver Public Schools. Gifted students put pressure on themselves and often think about “really heavy things” such as existential crises, Langford said.

“I think the schools do a good job of mental health for general population,” Langford said. But “for the kids who are just flying under the radar … they need something extra. They need people who understand that and can help them in the emotional load they carry.”

On a broader level, for Allis, the Cherry Creek High senior, it appears that teachers have become more understanding of personal struggles.

“Teachers, over the last (few years), will say if you had a hard night, if you have something going on in your family, let me know, and we can move an assignment back,” Allis said. “I definitely feel like teachers are becoming more aware and more active in that sense.”

Langford, 37, wishes students would have more of a chance to “just be a kid.”

“When I was in high school and middle school, it was OK to just hang out and not have to do so much homework or be in eight different sports,” Langford said. “If that’s what you want to do, that’s great, but if you’re not that kid, that’s OK.”

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