JOSE, Calif. ó A popular and accomplished Los Altos High
student received a parentís text message at school last
year, to come home to talk about her grades. The student and
star athlete had earned all Aís ó except one D. She asked
to be excused from English class to go to the bathroom, but
she never returned. She had collapsed, suffering a disabling
student, who didnít want to be identified because of the
stigma of mental illness, is not alone.
are seeing more and more students suffering from depression,
anxiety and social phobia. The acuity of mental illness among
students has sharpened, they say, and itís striking ever
younger children, though many quietly bear the stress for
years before snapping.
was very good at putting up a facade," said the Los Altos
High student, now a senior, who later was diagnosed with major
depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a
diagnosis that her parents resisted for six months and that
many who knew her couldnít believe.
was raised on how to sell myself, which buttons to press,
which phrases to drop," she added, until one day
"everything just shattered."
increasing stress isnít just afflicting children of Silicon
Valleyís affluent and educated, who attend top schools among
driven, college-bound peers. Though not yet reflected in
lagging and incomplete national statistics, the trend appears
to cut across social class, income level, ethnicity and
see all demographics," said Gloria Dirkmaat, special
education director in the San Mateo Union High School
High on San Jose, Calif.ís East Side has seen a spike in
student panic attacks. Anxiety disorder rose this past fall
among teens in nearby schools as well.
are seeing children who are coming in with greater needs
around mental health, and also seeing them at an earlier
age," said Judith Cameron of the San Ramon Valley Unified
schools have reported an increase in mental illness. But not
every school has staff attentive to each studentís
well-being, nor do they have therapists and psychologists at
changing. Since a rash of student suicides at Palo Alto high
schools four years ago, the district has trained teachers, put
in place safeguards, offered more counseling and now is
training all students in how to intervene with those who may
threaten to kill themselves.
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Ramon Valley schools added a counselor at every secondary
school this academic year to deal with mental health. And a
Morgan Hill school beefed up therapists for depression among
fourth- and fifth-graders. Two years ago, the San Mateo Union
district created two classes for students with social phobias.
It runs two more classes for those with anxiety or depression,
in addition to two classes for students with more complicated
emotional problems. Theyíre all full, Dirkmaat said.
behind the rise is uncertain. Theories include economic
distress, dysfunctional families, absent and preoccupied busy
parents, technology obsession, social media and extraordinary
pressure on kids to excel.
not expected to be great; theyíre expected to be
stupendous," said Cristy Dawson, assistant principal at
Los Altos High, about the ultracompetitive college-going
culture. "This valley is all about getting ahead."
anxiety grows into phobias. "Kids are so depressed or
anxious, theyíre not getting out of bed; theyíre becoming
agoraphobic," afraid to appear in public, said Helen Hsu,
a supervisor at the city of Fremontís Youth and Family
Services, which provides therapists to several schools.
Aragon High student, now 18, left the San Mateo school as a
freshman because he had become increasingly afraid to attend
school. Two years in boarding schools didnít help. He
returned to the district and enrolled in Haven, a class for
students with fears like his.
stepped through the door, and it was a bit like my heart would
stop," said the student, who also asked not to be
identified, about his first day at Haven. But thanks to the
program, he graduated, got a retail job and enrolled this
semester at College of San Mateo.
stigma surrounding mental illness discourages some parents
from seeking help.
had parents refuse to sign permission for counseling for one
boy," said Hsu, whose agency conducted a training for
Fremont Unified home-health teachers. "They were afraid
it would negatively affect his college application."
from the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that the
incidence of teen mental illness was stable for 10 years
through the early 2000s, the latest data available. Those
surveys show that 25 percent of teens have suffered anxiety at
some time in their lives, 11.2 percent major depression and
2.4 percent agoraphobia.
mental health professionals and educators say those statistics
are out of sync with what they observe.
see an incredible rise in the stress in families," said
Barbara Neal, principal at Morgan Hillís Nordstrom
high-pressure run-up to college claims many victims.
a consistent urgency that you have to be the best," said
Los Altos High School junior Borna Barzan, 16, who co-leads a
school club called Letís Erase the Stigma to teach fellow
students about mental health.
Brenda Carrillo, student services coordinator in Palo Alto
Unified, said itís important not to blame academic pressure
mental health condition doesnít necessarily come from high
expectations," she said.
support from the school, the Los Altos student has brought her
depression under control. She noted that students face
pressures from peers and social media ó such as the
must-look Facebook page where seniorsí college acceptances
are posted, whether they want it or not ó but also from
within. While overloading themselves with advanced-placement
classes and extracurricular activities, "everyone really
focuses on the future, like college and jobs," she said.
no oneís looking at themselves and asking, ĎAm I happy?í"