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#MHYALit: Pushed Too Hard: Academic Pressure and Mental Health Concerns, a guest post by Cindy L. Rodriguez

Today we are glad to have Cindy L. Rodriguez, author of WHEN REASON BREAKS, joining us to talk about depression, pressure, and expectation. Visit our hub to see all of the posts in the #MHYALit series. 

 

MHYALitlogoofficfialI have always been a rabid overachiever.

 

I started kindergarten early and skipped the sixth grade, so I was only twelve when I started ninth grade and sixteen when I started my freshman year at the University of Connecticut. There, I was a good student (3.0 GPA), even while juggling a full course load every semester and more than full-time hours at The Daily Campus, the student-run newspaper, where I was a reporter, then news editor, then managing editor. In the summers, I interned at newspapers, which helped to land a job at the Hartford Courant after graduation. Three years later, I got a job as a researcher at The Boston Globe. I was working for one of the biggest newspapers in the country, for the Spotlight team, no less, at the age of twenty-three.

 

And then I completely unraveled.

 

The job wasn’t working out, and the editors wouldn’t move me into a new position. I stuck it out for as long as I could because I was grateful to be at The Boston Globe and figured I could fix this. But I couldn’t. I started to experience every symptom of depression, but I pushed on without seeking medical attention for almost two years because I thought I could fix it. I couldn’t. Depression, I would learn, runs in my family, and my experience in Boston was the trigger. But, it was just a job, right? Nope. It was my entire identity. I was a journalist. My best friends were journalists. I saw everything in the world as a possible newspaper article. Every step I took personally, professionally, academically led me to Boston, and then I hit a wall.

 

I was a failure with no Plan B.

 

I have openly discussed my depression before and my concerns about how the disease is underdiagnosed and undertreated in minority communities and young adult fiction.

 

Today, I want to talk about expectations, mental health, and young people. In my case, no one pushed me. My parents were always supportive and proud but never once suggested I try harder or do more. I own this. It’s who I am. I set goals and want to achieve them, and when I was young, learning something new or achieving something felt great and left me asking, “What’s next?”

 

I’m still like this. I set goals and want to achieve them. I always ask, “What’s next?” because I am a life-long learner and want to explore and grow until the end. But, now that I am older, wiser, and have reaped the benefits of medication and therapy, I know when I’m doing too much. I’m better at recognizing when I need to say “no” or when I need to alter my plan because it is jeopardizing my mental health.

 

But, as a parent and educator, I worry that we are creating and endorsing high-stakes external triggers that could harm the young people we care so much about—our children, our students.

 

Today, many schools choose academics over recess. We have competitive preschool programs in some communities and none in others, ensuring unequal access to educational opportunities and the continuation of the achievement gap. We expect students to read by the end of kindergarten and do hours of homework in elementary school. We separate students into honors classes by middle school. The division becomes more severe in high school, with students pushed into honors and AP classes. Many high school students graduate early and already have college credits. The collective message is that average is not good enough. Overachievement is the norm, and college is required for success. The pressure to perform is immense for all students, and many have significant, added obstacles connected to poverty. About 25 percent of high school freshman fail to graduate on time. And those who “make it?” About 45 percent of first-time undergraduates who matriculated in the fall of 2008 did not earn a degree after six years.

 

We are pushing young people harder than ever, and to what end?

 

In this New York Times article, college counseling centers reported that more than half of their clients have severe psychological problems, and that anxiety and depression are now the most common health diagnoses among college students.

 

I see the faces behind the statistics in my classroom, in the hallways, at book signings, and in my home. My daughter cried over math homework when she was in the first grade. At a meeting, a seventh-grade boy’s parents harped on the one B on his report card for band. A sixth-grade girl held her head in her hands during last year’s state testing. When I asked if she was okay, she stared at the screen, tears in her eyes, and said, “I don’t know how to do this.” When a young woman asked me to sign my book for her, I spotted a semicolon tattoo on her wrist. When one of my college students talked about his personal narrative essay, I spotted scars all over both of his arms.

 

I see myself in them. And I worry about them. And I wonder what I can do as a mother, teacher, and writer.

 

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve decided on a few things. I will always stress effort, stamina, and process over achievement in my home and classroom. I will always openly talk about not being perfect, how I am average at some things, and downright horrible at others. I will always tell them about my brother, who is an auto mechanic, and my sister, who is an artist, and how there are multiple ways to be intelligent. I may even write a YA novel set in a technical school because where are those? More than anything, I will always openly talk about and write about having and managing depression so that young people realize it’s common and treatable—that they, too, can survive it, manage it, and continue to accomplish things in life without losing themselves in the process.

 

About When Reason Breaks

when reasonA Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her.

Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal.

Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy.

In an emotionally taut novel that is equal parts literary and commercial, with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls fighting for their lives.

 

Meet Cindy L. Rodriguez

cindyrodriguez2Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU and has worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe. She and her daughter live in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She is a founder of Latin@s in Kid Lit and a member of the We Need Diverse Books team. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

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