Elitist Culture in Lamorinda Impacts Teen Psyche


Makayla Erickson

Pressure to excel is immense for Lamorinda students.

A family-oriented, geographically beautiful community nestled between the Caldecott Tunnel and Walnut Creek, California, Lamorinda is seemingly an incredible place to raise a family. Comprised of the 3 cities of Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda, the community is known for its high-quality public schools, single family homes, low crime rate, and high-end amenities.

In Lafayette, known to be the most urban of the 3 cities in the otherwise “sleepy” community, the average household income is $250,550. The median house value is $1.43 million, and the city boasts a poverty rate of just 3.43%. 81.25% of Lafayette residents are white.

Amidst the many country clubs, endless backyard acreage, and tree-lined streets filled with polished luxury cars, Lamorinda is, without a doubt, an affluent community. At local schools like Campolindo, many students have never lived without the omnipresent security of privilege.

Although it would be wrong to say that every family or student in our area is swimming in excess wealth and materialism, the grasp of privilege extends much further than shiny, new Jeep Wranglers and weekend getaways to Tahoe. Regardless of one’s personal financial standing or privilege, the pressure to excel is far-reaching and extensive.

Lamorinda’s culture of elitism is deeply ingrained, and it has real, tangible consequences. Teenage mental health is a rapidly growing concern in our community, and the undying pressure to achieve excellence in all facets of life can be utterly overwhelming for adolescents.

According to Hanna Rosin for The Atlantic, wealthy middle and high school students show higher average rates of drug and alcohol abuse than the national average, and they display clinical depression and anxiety at a rate of 2 to 3 times the national average. Adolescents who, on the surface, have everything – expensive clothing, private tutoring, new technology, college funds – are suffering.

To some extent, adolescents from wealthy communities feel pressure to fulfill the expectations of their families and neighbors. Generally speaking, those who live in Lamorinda are comparatively financially well-off, leaving many teenagers with a real or perceived obligation to excel in school, attend a top 4-year university, succeed in the workplace, and raise their own families with the same level of economic comfort they observed throughout childhood. Even when parents don’t explicitly demand such traditional “excellence” from their children, there is undeniable pressure to do as well, if not better, than our parents.

Senior Paige Chivers said, “I think that most of our parents are at the top of their fields to be able to support the environment and the housing we live in, and so I think that there’s a lot of pressure on teenagers to continue that…legacy.”

Despite the pressure from outside sources “to follow a path…the path,” Chivers has made the decision to take a gap year upon graduation. “I’ve kind of always strayed from the traditional path, and I think that I’ve felt a lot of pressure from outside people, more sports as well…and I’ve just decided that I’m going to take a gap year, I’m going to do things for myself…I want to spend time trying to figure out where my place is before rushing into something,” said Chivers.

As a senior, I’ve observed that the majority of my peers are pursuing a college degree at a 4-year school. In our community, a college education is often treated as an expectation, rather than a choice or a privilege, creating an unrealistic norm. The college admissions process is undeniably competitive, and wealthy parents fuel the competition amongst their children.

With so few spots at elite universities, parents funnel time and funds into their student’s education, scrambling to earn their child a slot at the school of their dreams (though whose dream it is often remains debatable). Termed “the rug rat race” by economists Garey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, competition accelerates due to the sheer exclusivity of elite schools, preventing children of less-educated parents from even having a shot.

Campo prides itself on its college preparatory status, offering dozens of Advanced Placement (AP) classes, standardized testing opportunities, and complimentary college counseling to its many college hopefuls. While these resources can be incredibly valuable to those interested in attending college, they also wrongly stigmatize alternate paths.

Wellness Intake Specialist Liana McCann said, “I think college is talked about a lot, and I think alternative options aren’t talked about as much. You don’t have to go to a 4 year [college], you can go to a 2 year [college], or take time off, or not even go to college. So I think those options need to become more normalized to break down some of the stigma around that.”

Frankly, a traditional college experience is not the right fit for everyone. There are so many paths to pursue following high school, from community college to a gap year to immediately joining the workforce. Even when advice regarding these other paths is provided, such as informational lectures held in the College and Career Center, students choosing to bypass the university experience are subject to undue judgment – almost as if not going to college equates to failure.

Having a higher education does not necessarily denote intelligence, nor does it indicate future success. Although it is true that those with college degrees often earn higher wages, coined the “college wage premium,” success is not always determined by the dollar amount on your paycheck.

Addressing the pressure on teenagers, McCann said that it is crucial to put “less emphasis on [needing] to go to college to be successful, because I think a lot of stress stems from grades and if those grades will get them into college. If we accept that there’s other ways and pathways, it takes some of that pressure off, I would think or hope.”

Not only do high schoolers feel pressure to earn admittance to exclusive universities, but they are burdened with maintaining high grades and test scores so as not to jeopardize their opportunities. Even in middle school, I can recall my classmates discussing what would “look good on college applications,” allowing the seemingly far-off college admissions process to dictate their classes, interests, and extracurricular activities at a mere 13-years-old.

McCann noted that “academic pressure comes up a lot” in her conversations with students, with “freshmen coming [into the Wellness Center who are] very worried about if they’re going to get into college and how many APs they need to take.”

“Seeing it in freshmen has been kind of alarming where I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, if you fail 1 test, you’re going to be okay.’ I think it’s easy to spiral when 1 bad thing happens and to know that, regardless of if you fail a test, fail a class, things will be okay. But, I don’t know if it’s just [that] these days there’s more wanting to be perfect or successful,” added McCann.

The academic pressure on students often amounts to more than simply feeling stressed before a big exam. According to an NCBI study researching the psychological costs of material wealth, 1 in 5 suburban girls in 10th grade reported clinically significant levels of depressive symptoms, and clinically significant anxiety among both boys and girls was also higher than normative values. Substance use was also reported at elevated rates among these populations.

In nearby Palo Alto, 1 of the most expensive cities in the United States, teen suicide rates have skyrocketed. From 2010 to 2014, an average of 20 children and young adults committed suicide annually in Santa Clara Country, where Palo Alto is located, according to The Washington Post. Though research does not indicate that wealthy youth are necessarily more likely to end their own lives, the immense pressure to succeed academically and in multiple extracurriculars impacts the mental and physical wellbeing of children. When parents are simply trying to do what they think is best for their children, and even when they’re not, the burden can tragically be too much for seemingly happy, popular, or successful youth.

Chivers said, “I think there is this huge dynamic of wealth and power, and I don’t think that’s necessarily unique [to Lamorinda]…If you went to Hollywood or Del Mar [or] Beverly Hills, you would probably see the same thing – the same forms of elitism.”

Teenagers in our community are faced with pressure to succeed academically, to look a certain way, to have athletic prowess, and to have certain material things. Fundamentally, they’re faced with a deeply rooted pressure to prove themselves worthy of success in the eyes of scornful onlookers.

Though Campolindo has taken steps to increase mental health support, notably through the establishment of the Wellness Center, the societal problem runs much deeper. Support cannot cease when students set foot off-campus, as the root of this epidemic is an ever present force.

McCann stressed the importance of “asking for help, taking care of yourself, addressing the stress or anxiety you’re feeling, and knowing that it’s okay to say that out loud. Ask for extra support. That’s a brave thing to do, to take that step to get help. I think our school is hopefully on its way towards lessening the stigma around mental health support.”

Elitism is toxic, and the pressure on Lamorinda youth is undeniable. I know I feel it, and chances are you do, too.