Rachel and Mike Leary thought they were way ahead of the game in securing high-quality day care for their unborn son when, five months pregnant, they called a day care center.
“And they very nicely laughed at us,” Rachel said, “but in a way that made it feel very much like it was obvious we should've called ahead of time."
In the Learys' hometown of Groton, Mass., 40 miles northwest of Boston, many affluent white and Asian families hold wait-list spots for kids not even conceived yet.
So the couple widened their search. One center they visited touted science and math education, having toddlers don white coats and goggles as if they worked in a MIT lab. Another offered individualized education plans for each kid.
"They had goals starting in infancy around these different developmental areas, including executive function, which is what killed me," said Rachel, who is a child psychologist.
The early intensity in upscale suburban families about their children’s future achievement is said to be one factor behind the mental health crisis that colleges are facing. Over the past 10 years, the rate of anxiety and depression among college-age students has doubled, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. Psychologists say the pressures driving these problems start long before kids set foot on campus.
When high-achieving parents try to solve every problem for their kids when they're young — securing spots at highly-coveted day care centers and setting up college savings plans — psychologists say as a result, their children could suffer from anxiety and depression. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds face different pressures that can cause similar mental health problems in college.
"The pressures on kids — they're born into it," said David Gleason, a clinical psychologist and author of "At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools."
Gleason said that increasingly, affluent students are overprotected, over-scheduled and overwhelmed before they have the capacity to manage stress.
"The parents who are now old enough to have children are themselves products of this very system, so they don't know anything else," he said.
For the past 20 years, Gleason has provided counseling services at Concord Academy, which has seen a spike in anxiety and depression among its students. Over the past decade, he said, the private prep school in the Boston suburb of the same name has seen three students take their own lives off-campus.
"I saw kids getting worse,” he said. “I saw kids go from presenting primarily with, like, eating disorders, and then they were cutting themselves, and now they're killing themselves. I know of elementary school kids and/or middle school kids who have already succumbed to these kinds of pressures."
Gleason says those pressures intensify around college admissions mania.
"They're all competing with each other to try to get into the most selective colleges,” he said. “This is what's leading to their anxiety and depression and, in some cases, suicide."
Above all, Gleason blames parents. The college admissions bribery scandal has demonstrated how guaranteeing seats at selective schools is not necessarily about parents doing what's best for their kids, but, instead, about securing their own privilege and preserving the family's status.
"The higher the income inequality ratio is in a country, the more there's kind of a winner-take-all mentality at the top," he said.
After looking for three months, the Learys settled on a day care center in Groton that focuses on developing children's curiosity and creativity.
Children growing up on the other side of the income gap face different pressures that can lead to the same kind of mental health problems in college.
Maria Santos of Dorchester has seen those pressures affect her son Jeremiah, 7, who suffers from anxiety and attention deficit. When she first sent him to kindergarten, she said, for weeks he would come home saying he hadn't made any friends.
So she visited the Murphy School in Dorchester to find out what was happening.
"That's when I found out that Jeremiah was in a classroom with children that didn't speak his language,” Santos said. “Most of the kids there spoke Vietnamese."
That helped her understand her son's behavior at school.
“I would get reports from the school that he grabbed a ball from another student, he pushed another student,” she recalled. “And I would ask him, 'What's going on? Why are you not playing with the kids as you should, sharing the ball?' He goes, 'Well, they don't understand what I'm saying.'"
Santos said Jeremiah would come home sad. The school told her that she must have mistakenly checked off on school forms that her son spoke another language other than English, putting Jeremiah in the class.
But Santos maintains she never checked off any language other than English. She suspects Jeremiah, now in the second grade, might have been discriminated against because of the color of his skin — he is black.
A spokesman for the Boston Public Schools said the district will continue to work diligently with this family to accommodate the needs of their child but cannot comment on the details of individual students.
Jeremiah currently attends Dever Elementary in Dorchester, but Santos says he will re-enroll at the Murphy in December.
Even the perception of racial discrimination affects young students of color physically and mentally, psychologists say.
“I think there’s a lot that colleges need to do, but we need to start before college,” said David Williams, who chairs the department of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard’s School of Public Health.
Williams pointed to a recently published national study of suicide rates among children ages five to 12, which found a marked decline in suicide for white students in elementary school, but a doubling of the suicide rates among African-American children.
For students of color, Williams said, the biggest concern is aggressive disciplining and policing. Other concerns include community violence and financial stress.
“High levels of fear, high levels of threat, high levels of hopelessness, low-perceived economic opportunity for them and uncertainty about the future," he said. "That’s a recipe for mental health challenges.”
Those challenges often persist through middle and high school and into college.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified David Williams as the dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health. He chairs the school’s department of social and behavioral sciences.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. More resources are available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.