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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Stress takes its toll on high school kids Stress takes its toll on high school kids (March 12, 2003)

Listening skills are key to heading off problems

By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer

One of the rude awakenings that can herald the onset of middle age is the first time the doctor hands you a pamphlet on the negative physiological effects of emotional stress and some recommendations on how to reduce it.

Today, the diagnosis of too much stress is often being applied to an age group already known for its inherent difficulties: teenagers. In a recent random sample of San Francisco students, the National Institutes of Health found that 30 percent of students were at risk of suicide.

While most teens successfully navigate childhood and are doing well in high school, "a sizable minority are not," said child psychiatrist June Reynolds at a recent forum on the subject of teen stress held at Menlo-Atherton High School.

Ms. Reynolds was one member of the forum's panel that included a survivor of attempted suicide as a teenager and five experts on teen stress. The program was sponsored by the PTA and the Sequoia high school district's Target Success Program.

"Some of our students have sex like they brush their teeth," said Geri Nicholas, the student outreach coordinator at M-A in a comment about one method students use to relieve stress.

There are "many, many children in crisis this year ... and many, many in hospitalization," said Leigh Escobedo, M-A's school nurse. At M-A last year, about 40 kids showed behavior serious enough to warrant close monitoring, Ms. Escobedo said, adding that there may be more such students this year.

"Hear them out and do not judge them," said Kevin Hines, 22, a panelist who four years ago, when he was a high school senior, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Mr. Hines was fortunate that the coast guard saw him jump and rescued him, he said -- and luckier still to have lived and fully recovered without any significant loss of function.

Taking the time to listen to teens is critical to heading off problems before they become severe, the panelists agreed. "Know your kid. Talk to your kid. Find out what's going on. Don't let the facade fool you," said Denise Clark Pope, a lecturer in the school of education at Stanford University and the author of a recently published book on the effects of stress on students.

Endurance tests

One in five teens experience serious emotional anguish, Ms. Reynolds said. Many of the causes are physiological, including hormonal releases associated with puberty and what she called "massive changes" in brain reorganization in preparation for adulthood, she said.

But on top of the physiological burdens, teens can experience competitive pressure in school, anxious parents checking up on their academic performance and a general feeling that things are beyond their control, particularly when their futures appear to be on the line, panelists said.

In response, many students hide the visible signs of stress and resort to unfavorable coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, cheating on tests and sex, all of which can be fueled by a belief that the high school stresses are endurance tests that sort the weak from the strong, Ms. Pope said.

Students in distress often keep their troubles a secret because they want to please their parents and aren't sure when they're succeeding, said Ms. Nicholas, the student outreach coordinator at M-A. Such silence can cut off all possibility of support and lead to strong feelings of loneliness, she said.

Sometimes, a student isn't able to articulate his or her true feelings, said Mr. Hines, who had twice tried to kill himself while a student. "Honesty is the key," he said. "Get it off your chest. ... You have to build that bravado up inside you."

Mr. Hines suffers from bipolar disorder, which causes him to hear voices, he said. The proper medication has made it tolerable, but at the time the medication he was taking wasn't working, leaving him very confused, he said. "I wanted to leave this world and go to the next," he said.

Mr. Hines, who is now a freshman at San Jose State University, said that as a teen, he had lied to his dad about his problems and was "in denial" for a year. "It's so easy to lie," he said. "I [could] tell them I wanted to kill myself, but then they'll put me away. In reality, I was so sick I couldn't stand up, you know, to the truth."

Asking for help is key, the panelists agreed. M-A's curriculum includes a peer counseling elective for grades 9-12 this year, said Ms. Nicholas, adding that she will often sit down and have a chat and a bite to eat with students showing signs of trouble.

Ms. Nicholas noted that students in this geographical area in particular seem preoccupied with "doing" rather than "being," adding "We don't do a very good job with children's spirits."

For help in a crisis

Parents who are concerned about signs that their child may be in danger because of intense stress or depression should call Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention at 368-5200.

Young people who need to talk about their depression or stressful situation should call the above number or California Youth Crisis Hotline at 1-800-843-5200.


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