“I would try and get myself sick. I looked up online what the lethal dose of bleach is. I thought about drinking just enough bleach so that I would throw up and I wouldn’t have to go to school to take my math test, but I wouldn’t die.”
Palo Alto High School student Jennifer, whose name has been changed, along with several other students mentioned in this story, fell into depression last year due to academic-induced stress. A member of two varsity sports teams, with a rigorous seven-course workload, Jennifer says she felt pressured to be perfect.
“I wouldn’t talk to people at brunch, and I would just go to the library to try to get homework done,” Jennifer says. “When the rest of my friend group was talking, I felt like it was just too loud, so I would go away. I was so focused on doing productive things that I didn’t allow myself to do anything else.”
Once, having missed a couple of assignments and done poorly on a few tests, she says she began to feel worthless in comparison to everyone else. She did well in the past. Now, people expected more. But as her course load escalated, those expectations seemed impossible to meet. Jennifer had fallen into the trap of depression.
“It’s like you’re walking upstream, and the water is up to your neck, and it’s rushing really, really fast downstream,” Jennifer says. “It’s really cold, but you have to keep going, and every once in a while, there are rocks that you can hold on to, and you can rest, but eventually, those rocks get pushed away by the current, and the option of just stopping and letting the current carry you down is very attractive.”
It is important to realize that while depression can be triggered or worsened by specific events and societal pressures, it is fundamentally caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Although not medically diagnosed, Jennifer considered herself depressed.
Mental health has been a prominent issue in our community since the series of student suicides in 2009, but has no yet received the same recognition as physical health.
As reported by the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 21 percent of children ages nine to 17 have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder. However, only 20 percent of children with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services in any given year.
Child psychologist Cari Anderson says that the leading cause of depression and anxiety in adolescents is stress-induced feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, which are magnified in affluent communities like Palo Alto.
During adolescence, the brain undergoes significant developmental changes, causing emotional fluctuations, Anderson says. Of course, most everyone feels unhappy at times, but as teenagers struggle to find their identity while managing the stress of being a high school student in Palo Alto, they become extraordinarily prone to stress-based anxiety and depression.
According to a survey of 170 Paly students taken in English classes, 38 percent reported either experiencing depression or anxiety at some point in their lives.
Anderson says that teens who are busy living up to societal standards of perfection sacrifice the time they need to build their own identities. Jennifer agrees that the expectations are overwhelming.
“In Palo Alto, you’re expected to do a lot of different activities — you can’t just be good at one thing,” Jennifer says. “But if you’re involved in a lot of different activities, you feel like you have to be great at everything you do.”
Jennifer thinks perfection is an addictive concept because it establishes a sense of worthiness in the eyes of others but creates unreachable expectations. Being an active member of varsity sports teams and taking the school’s hardest classes are no longer enough to satisfy everyone else’s expectations.
“Due to the pressure, things that I enjoyed — believe it or not, I actually enjoyed math once — and the sport that I compete in all became things that I actively avoided,” Jennifer says.
Jennifer is not alone. Our survey found that 58 percent of Paly students feel the pressure to be perfect.
“Living in the bubble that is Palo Alto heightens my anxiety,” senior Noah Hashmi says. “I constantly see and hear of examples of success, and if I’m not compared to them, I’ve gotten into a habit of inadvertently comparing myself with them.”
When teenagers are taught that they can do anything, it can mistranslate into the belief that they must do everything — especially what their peers are good at.
Survey results showed that 73 percent of Paly students feel pressured to be good at the same things that their peers are good at instead of finding their own passion.
This can cause students to over-commit themselves.
“Being really busy and not having time to form deep relationships with people can lead to feeling really lonely even though they’re around other people all the time, because they’re all just superficial relationships,” Anderson says. “If the main pleasure you get in the activity is winning, not in doing the activity itself, it’s a really different experience. Then, the moment you lose, there isn’t anything left and there’s nothing to feel good about because you suddenly haven’t lived up to this mark.”
Many students admit that they ignore mental health concerns when it comes as a trade-off to achievement.
“I took AP U.S. History because both of my siblings took it and I didn’t want to be that one sibling that didn’t live up to them,” junior Aiva Petriceks says. “When signing up for classes, my first thought isn’t ‘What class will I enjoy the most.’ It’s ‘Let me take as many hard classes [as I can] without making me go crazy.’”
Petriceks says she believes that the perfectionist mentality places the bar too high, setting everyone up for inevitable failure and feelings of inadequacy and depression.
According to Mark, a Paly student diagnosed with depression, most people don’t really understand what it means to be depressed, and this lack of understanding can make it harder to support friends who suffer from depression or anxiety problems.
“When I’m depressed, I don’t feel like they are my friends anymore,” Mark says. “I feel like the world is closed in against me, like I’m trapped in a box. The worst thing about depression is that it’s a cup and there’s no bottom. You pour in water and it comes right out onto the floor. When you feel happy, you fall right back on the floor, so you need to get a new cup — a new purpose to be happy.”
For Mark, losing hope was the toughest aspect of his depression.
“When I was depressed, I lost purpose,” Mark says. “I lost hope, and you really need hope because without it there’s nothing really to look forward to every day.”
Mark believes that many students pretend to be happy to maintain a facade of perfection.
“I think a lot of people are unexpectedly depressed even when they’re really happy,” Mark says. “Everyone wears a mask to school to not show what they’re going through.”
Jennifer admits that she was afraid to acknowledge her depression because she didn’t want to be labeled as weak and imperfect.
“I was scared of being depressed and afraid of crying in front of people and of showing weakness,” Jennifer says.
Paly student Sabrina says that adolescents suffering from depression and anxiety problems need to realize that they are not alone and that it’s okay to seek help from counselors.
“To anyone who is going through depression, or any mental illness for that matter, remember that it gets better and that you are loved,” Sabrina says. “There are people who care about you.”
Anderson adds that depression and anxiety are more prevalent among teens than most realize.
“If they look around at their classroom at Paly, they’re not the only one in that classroom that has that experience,” Anderson says.
Anderson emphasizes that sufferers of mental health problems can greatly benefit from talking to trusted people. Jennifer’s personal experience with depression leads her to agree.
“I think many people are depressed and they don’t know what to do, so they just try to deal with it themselves,” Jennifer says. “Sometimes it helps to tell other people what you’re thinking, so that you can identify the source of stress.”
Academic Counseling Services: 1-650-833-4244
24/7 Teen Crisis Hotline: 1-888-247-7717
SCC Suicide Crisis Hotline: 1-855-278-4204