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.

School counselor Judy Prothro makes a point during a meeting of the LETS Club, or Let’s Erase The Stigma Club, at Los Altos H.S. in Los Altos, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. On left is student David Wu, 16. LETS is a student-run club designed to help students break down the stigma of mental illness and to build their confidence that it’s okay to feel stress and ask for help to deal with it rather than let it build up and end in tragic fashion. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group) ( Patrick Tehan )

“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.

School counselor Judy Prothro makes a point during a meeting of the LETS Club, or Let’s Erase The Stigma Club, at Los Altos H.S. in Los Altos, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Looking on, from left, are students Katherine Mumm, 14, Jessica King, 14, and Borna Barzin, 16. LETS is a student-run club designed to help students break down the stigma of mental illness and to build their confidence that it’s okay to feel stress and ask for help to deal with it rather than let it build up and end in tragic fashion. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group) ( Patrick Tehan )

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
  • Self-esteem
  • 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.

To request an education presentation, please contact Roni GillensonOn-Campus Counseling Program Director at 650.424.0852, ext. 102.

3 Responses to “Depression, anxiety and social phobias rising in kids, educators say”

  1. Dear,,

    Hi.. please introduce myself,,My name is Hwang Cho Ryeon,,I am Asian,24 years old. I am unemployed. I have been fired from the job I was in twice. I can hardly find any other job bcs of my bad working experience on my cv.
    Since then, I realized that I am a slow learner. I was fired bcs I did mistakes for so many times and didn’t understand the instructions properly.

    Well, I have big problem with learning new thing. I used to be a very hardworker but still there always be some flaws on my work. My supervisor always mad at me like, “I’ve said it so many times!”. They did right thing. I didnt blame my previous supervisors who fired me. All I am blaming is my ability of learning and understanding.

    Because of this,I know my weakness well. This leads me to have a terrible feeling when it comes to talk to someone, I’m always getting nervous and panic when I have to explain something. That’s one of the reason why I got fired. I have bad communication skill. Why, because I am afraid if I’m doing wrong.

    Ever since the last day of my working, I haven’t applied for any job yet. I have traumatic feeling about getting fired. My mom always scold me and asking why I’m not looking for another Job. In fact, I never told this to anyone before include, (especially) my parents. I told them that my contract was terminated because I had to handle another job outside my Job desc. I didn’t tell them the honest reason.

    I can’t even share this to my bestfriends bcs they are the people I am envy with. They are the people I wish I could be. They are now having good position in their company with good salary. I feel so much intimidated when we go out for cinema or just hanging out,, they’re all proudly spending their self-earn money and sharing their working experience. Meanwhile, I am still using my parent’s money,, and the leftover money from my last salary.Things are getting harder for me when they ask what my daily activities are. In fact Im just doing nothing at home.

    I keep telling lies to everyone. I am really afraid to tell the truth and to be judged. Having myself as a slow learner has already become the most hurtful thing I have to face.

    Now I am fighting so much againts my own anxiety and low self esteem. I am so afraid what if I never get a proper job.
    I am really expecting for you to do me a favor about what to do? What am I supposed to do ?
    I am so much thankful for your help..

    Best Regards
    Hwang Cho Ryeon

    • Hello Hwang,

      We presented your letter to one of our Program Directors who is professional therapist. Here is her reply:

      It is common to feel anxious and worried about your future when something traumatic has happened to you as a young adult. It is understandable that you would feel upset, critical of your abilities and careful not to share these vulnerable feelings with others. Counseling can be a safe place to begin to talk about your worries and fears without concerning your parents or friends. The counselor can help you sort out your problems – possibly help you see a doctor for your anxiety, connect you to learning resources and job centers to help you find employment.

      Isolation can be a contributor to our low self esteem. It is important to reach out. Every community has a sliding scale non profit counseling center that is confidential and would be the first place to start to sort out these issues. You are not alone – getting help is only a phone call away.

      Another support that many people find helpful is a 24 Suicide Prevention and Crisis Line 855-278-4204. Anyone can call who is in need of support, feeling overwhelmed and in crisis ( not necessarily suicidal) and a trained counselor will take your call anytime day or night. You can remain anonymous and get the help you need.

      If you are in the Bay Area we can offer a referal to some low-cost therapy services for adults. At Adolescent Counseling Services we exclusively treat adolescent (pre-teens and teens) and their families.

      Please let us know how else we can help and thank you for contacting us.

      ACS Teen Talk

  2. We’re a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.
    Your site offered us with valuable information to work on. You’ve done an impressive job and our
    whole community will be grateful to you.

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