Acknowledged, addressed, ignored or buried, the pressure to achieve comes at adolescents from all directions. Academics, sports, siblings, parents and peers pull teens in many directions, sometimes pushing them to succeed, sometimes pushing them into antisocial habits, isolation or depression.

This year the Mental Health Association of the North Shore challenged teens to articulate some of the effects of this pressure by posing the following question as the theme of their annual essay contest: “How does the pressure to achieve affect the mental and emotional health of teenage boys?”

Twelve winners – six of them from Evanston Township High School – were selected to receive cash prizes; the writers and their essays were recognized on May 17 by the Mental Health Association of the North Shore. Larry and Marilyn Cohen, who established the Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in memory of their daughter, who suffered from bipolar disorder, said, “The problem with [mental illness] is that there is stigma inside and stigma outside. … With the inside stigma, you doubt you can achieve something. … Outside, people think someone with a mental illness is going to be a slasher. … The way to overcome that stigma is through education – to find out more about the disease and to help give resources.”

This year, Mr. and Mrs. Cohen chose the topic of men’s and boys’ mental health for both the annual conference and the MHANS teen essay contest. MHANS president Elizabeth Brasher and Mary
Beth Roth, MHANS essay committee chair, commended the teens for their
courageous writing and called the contest
a “labor of love.”

Excerpts From Essays

Below are some excerpts from the 12 winning essays in the Mental Health Association of the North Shore essay contest. Although the question focused on the mental and emotional health of teenage boys, not all the winners were male.

Juan Becerril – “”There is pressure from parents, teachers and siblings.”” …

Sam Genualdi – “”How often does a teenager get a chance to do what he wants? …  It isn’t easy to balance your life.”” …

Ariel Goodman – “”The pressure to achieve rains down on guys and girls from the second week of high school. … Sometimes it feels like the fragility of teenage life might crumble away at any moment. … [T]ake a step back. … Enjoy the last years of childhood before the world swallows us up.””

Nigel Turk – “”Each of the demands on us has only the potential to break us: parents, whose expectations drove their children mad. … Remember your own stories. [This is not just] to tell you my story but to help you tell your stories so you may heal.””

Maya Kosover – “”Our society expects boys to cover up their emotions. … I think of the thousands of boys who shake off their disappointments … in order to conform to the bravery expected of them.””

Linnea Levy – “”I look in the mirror and what do I see?”” Her poem described an adolescent boy who “”chose the wrong boys to be [his] friends”” – those who smoke and who mistreat girls and joke about it.

Asher Stamell (absent; essay read by Maya) – Asked to name five essentials, “”I could absolutely not live without failure. … I failed and [I learned that] nothing changed. [No one teased or castigated him for the failure, so he was able to keep on.]””

Jake Seiden – “”All around me, people cope. … I know that some people give up. … They fall into drugs … They even drop out of school.””