May 17, 2017

Screening of “Race to Nowhere” Tackles Stress on Young People

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: Dress for Success Mercer County (DFSMC), started in 2007 with seed money from Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), is approaching its 10th anniversary. At the Second Annual Women’s Empowerment Breakfast held recently at Trenton Country Club, DFSMC Executive Director Melissa Tenzer met with representatives from BMS. Pictured, from left, are BMS’s Andrea Gladman and Robert Voldase, DFSMC’s Melissa Tenzer, and Kathy Matriello of BMS.

It’s no secret that many of today’s high school students are overworked, overstressed, and severely sleep-deprived. A recently released study conducted by Stanford University researchers confirmed that Princeton teenagers fall right into this category.

The effects of this pressure-cooker culture are the theme of Race to Nowhere, a film being screened Sunday, May 21 at John Witherspoon Middle School by the organization Princeton Balance. First shown locally seven years ago at the Arts Council of Princeton, the independently produced and distributed documentary has also been screened in more than 6,000 schools, community centers, and other institutions all over the country.

The film’s director is former Wall Street lawyer Vicki Abeles. The California-based mother of three, who will be on hand for the May 21 screening, has devoted most of the past decade to getting the message out and trying to make things better. “I’m a change agent,” said Ms. Abeles. “This is a health crisis on a scale that we have yet to fully recognize.”

Ms. Abeles dates her commitment to the issue to 10 years ago, when she noticed a change in her own children. “My daughters were in middle school. I saw two happy, confident girls start to lose sleep and become depressed,” she recalled in a phone conversation. “I wondered if it was just our family. But then I discovered that many parents in our community, which is East Bay, south of San Francisco, were seeing the same thing.”

It was the suicide of a 13-year-old girl in Ms. Abeles’s community — after she failed a math test — that galvanized her into action. “I knew I had to do something,” she said. “I knew I had to give voice to our kids so we wouldn’t lose another child.”

Along with Ms. Abeles, Calvin Chin, Princeton University’s director of counseling and psychological services, will be on hand for a post-film discussion. “I want people to come away with a sense that they are not alone, and that we must do some simple things differently if we really want our children to thrive,” wrote Jess Deutsch, of Princeton Balance, in a press release. “I think the film and Vicki and Calvin will help parents rethink the race, and imagine healthier, more authentic paths.”

The release describes the film as “an exposure of how excessive homework, high-stakes testing, and a cyclical trap of busyness and competition have led to an epidemic of disengaged, unprepared, unhealthy young people.” It is a theme that Mr. Chin recognizes from his interactions with the highly motivated students at Princeton University.

“I certainly see students who put a lot of pressure on themselves and feel overwhelmed by stress and anxiety,” he said. “These are students who have always excelled and have this really high standard for themselves. It’s often difficult when they get to Princeton, because the work suddenly becomes that much harder, and they can’t be statistically at the top anymore. We see a lot of students who have a hard time negotiating that.”

Since directing Race to Nowhere, Ms. Abeles has made another film, Beyond Measure, and written the book Beyond Measure: How Our Obsession with Success, Homework, and Testing Threatens the Health and Happiness of Our Kids. Some recent surveys she has done reveal numbers that are “really scary,” she said. “At a Bay Area high school, we found that more than half the kids are clinically depressed. I think we as a community of parents and educators and health care professionals have a responsibility to change this. We need people to understand that unhealthy young people are unavailable to learn the way we want them to. So we’ve also created a learning crisis and they can’t make the valuable contributions in their lives that they would like to be making.”

More research around the impact of toxic stress on young people has shown “we are setting them up for lifelong physical conditions like cancer, heart disease, and immune system disease,” she added. “It’s depressing.”

Yet, there is hope. “It happens when you bring communities together,” Ms. Abeles said. “A lot of fear holds people back from creating the change kids need. We need to realize the power we have to change this. It requires will and a sense of the power to do so.”

Mr. Chin said there is a greater focus on wellness at the University, and students seem more able to acknowledge that it’s not all about performance. “I think it’s important to get in touch with values and connect with each other,” he said. “There has been a lot of effort made in this direction, even grass roots effort among the students. The more we can create a culture within the University community, letting people know they don’t have to be perfect all the time, the better off we are.”

Ms. Abeles added, “The conversation has been stuck for a long time in a blame game. We’ve got to move beyond that. We have to start by addressing the toxic stressors in our kids’ lives.”

Race to Nowhere will be screened Sunday, May 21, at 2:30 p.m. A community discussion follows the screening. Tickets are free and available online. Visit