Depression, anxiety and social phobias rising in kids, educators say
By Sharon Noguchi
A popular and accomplished Los Altos High student received a parent’s text message at school last year, to come home to talk about her grades. The student and star athlete had earned all A’s — 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 emotional breakdown.
The student, who didn’t want to be identified because of the stigma of mental illness, is not alone. Across the Bay Area, educators 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 it’s striking ever younger children, though many quietly bear the stress for years before snapping.
“I 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 couldn’t believe. “I was raised on how to sell myself, which buttons to press, which phrases to drop,” she added, until one day “everything just shattered.”
The increasing stress isn’t just afflicting children of Silicon Valley’s 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 academic ability.
“We see all demographics,” said Gloria Dirkmaat, special education director in the San Mateo Union High School District.
Overfelt High on San Jose’s East Side has seen a spike in student panic attacks. Anxiety disorder rose this past fall among teens in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
“We 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 School District.
Not all schools have reported an increase in mental illness. But not every school has staff attentive to each student’s well-being, nor do they have therapists and psychologists at hand.
That is 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.
San 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. They’re all full, Dirkmaat said.
What’s 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.
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ACS’ On-Campus Counseling Program
provides individual, family and group counseling at no cost to students and their families at the five secondary schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District, at Woodside High School and Redwood High School in the Sequoia Union High School District and La Entrada Middle School in the Las Lomitas School District. The goal of the OCC Program has been to provide life-saving early intervention for teens dealing with challenging issues of adolescence. With accessible, compassionate therapists available on school campuses, teens have a safety net of professionals with whom to confront their issues.
The range of issues addressed through the OCC Program includes:
- Academic stress
- Parent/child communication
- Peer conflict
- Depression and anxiety
- Suicidal thoughts
- Grief and loss
- Substance abuse
ACS therapists connect students and families to vital community resources, such as mentoring programs,
after-school activities, community organizations and health care. They also conduct classroom presentations, assembly talks, PTA presentations and educational forums for parents.