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State of the Academy
Joshua Fang '19 Associate Editor
May 26, 2017

On February 9, world-renowned psychologist and researcher Dr. Suniya Luthar came to Deerfield to administer a comprehensive survey to the student body. For almost an hour, students gathered by grade to answer questions about all aspects of life at our school.

Similar surveys have been conducted by several other New England boarding schools such as Phillips Andover and Phillips Exeter. While these other schools conducted their studies in-house, Deerfield’s study was overseen by Dr. Luthar, Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Having received numerous accolades and authored many papers, Dr. Luthar focuses her work on helping teens build resilience in the face of the many stressors in their lives.

“I stumbled upon this finding quite by accident, that kids in highly achieving schools are more at risk of depression and anxiety and substance abuse,” Luthar recalled.

During this May’s Family Weekend, Dr. Luthar returned to Deerfield to present the results to the Deerfield community. Overall, she found results consistent with another boarding school where she had previously conducted a similar survey.

“My biggest take is, as with every other high-achieving school, there is a disproportionate number of kids here who are depressed and anxious,” Luthar said. “The very good news is that Deerfield and the other boarding schools are better than day schools in other parts of the country. And I was surprised by this.”

When asked if they felt unhappy, sad, or depressed, 32.3% of students responded ‘Somewhat True’ and 9.6% of students responded ‘Very True.’

Dr. Luthar spoke out against the constant pressures placed on students to perform, especially the pressure to get into a top college. “Strive for the top that you can get into or accomplish,” she said. “But know when you are reaching your limits and you are… getting discouraged and worn out. Know that no success is worth feeling like this, endlessly.”

Dr. Luthar cited these pressures as a primary cause in internalizing symptoms such as anxiety and depression. “If you find yourself crying into your pillow or being exhausted or, God forbid, saying you will hurt yourself, reach out for help and stop it. Pull back… You’ll get into some college. I myself went to Delhi University in India as an undergraduate.”

The most common reported cause of pressure to get into college was ‘self,’ with more than eighty percent of students citing moderate to strong pressure. The next most common cause was ‘parents.’

Dr. Luthar, who went to graduate school at Yale, warned students that big-name colleges do not guarantee enjoyable experiences. “[At Yale] there was just such an emphasis on achievement, [on] who’s publishing, who’s got an article published, when are you publishing, are you first author, second. High efficiency and top-notch performance were the big priorities; community service and connectedness — not much at all.” After moving from Yale to Columbia University, Dr. Luthar left the Ivy Leagues for Arizona State University, citing the draw of a warmer environment  – literally and figuratively.

The study will likely have an impact for many months to come. In the next several months, a group of students plans to fully disseminate the anonymous data and release the aggregated results in full online. Dr. Joshua Relin, Director of Counseling, has stated he plans to return to the data in a school meeting early next year to discuss its implications. There is a treasure trove of data waiting to be analyzed, with 625 responses to almost 800 questions.

Part of the reason the survey is so long is that each and every question has a purpose. In a school-wide census like this, there are bound to be outliers – joke answers, misclicks, and the like. To verify valid data, the survey includes many questions on each topic that are all similar or linked. In this way, by checking for correlations in obvious places, Dr. Luthar and her team can ensure the data set is accurate and reliable.

Dr. Luthar, along with many in the school, has high hopes for the survey’s impact on the school. She anticipates that the results, along with her story, will convince students to take a break from their constant lives of pressure and stress. “It’s about warmth,” she said thoughtfully. “Make time for it. Make sure you get it and you give it. Prioritize both.”