Green Ribbon Day provides resources to students
suffering anxiety, depression
By Lou Fancher
High school students exposed to temporary stress grow stronger, maybe even smarter, according to mental health experts. But teenagers exposed to toxic, overwhelming and repeated stress wither, worry, and may resort to risk-taking actions, or worse.
But kids suffering severe depression and anxiety are not alone and not without resources, which was the energy driving the Acalanes Parents Club Wellness Committee's sponsorship of the first-ever "Green Ribbon Day" and an evening panel discussion at Acalanes High School on Jan. 7.
Green Ribbon Day provided students with literature about helping themselves or a friend in need. Awareness bracelets, posters and announcements broadcast by Leadership student organizers throughout the school day addressed issues, including anxiety, stress, depression, bullying and the impact of social media.
"I thought it was a great idea," said Melissa Nolan, 15. "I know kids who suffer from depression. We don't acknowledge it because it's like it's an everyday thing."
She says competition to get straight A's, perform volunteer work and get into top-tier colleges is exhausting.
"We're meant to have stress, to use it to be creative, to make you think better. But not everyday. It's not just the schoolwork, it's social-wise. It compresses you to compare yourself to others."
Kate Wolffe, a 2014 graduate of Miramonte High School attending UC Berkeley and one of four panelists at the evening presentation said she "broke" and was often "freaking out" while striving for academic success at Miramonte.
Transitioning to college was harder than she expected. During high school, Wolffe kept a list of her identities -- editor-in-chief of the school paper, 4.0 student and more -- and felt lost in the less-pressured college environment.
"You don't take your titles to college," she said. "I thought I was doing something wrong because I wasn't stressed out."
Anecdotal and individual stories are important to families, but data is what got the attention of the entire student population, administrators, teachers, parents and mental health professionals. A California Healthy Kids survey conducted at Acalanes in 2013 asked students if they ever felt so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing usual activities. Twenty-four percent of ninth-graders and 26 percent of 11th-graders reported depressed feelings that qualify as mental health disorders. That survey also indicated that 16 percent of ninth-graders and 18 percent of 11th-graders had seriously considered suicide during the prior 12 months, according to the Acalanes Parents Club Wellness Committee.
A subsequent Stanford University-designed Challenge Success Survey administered in 2015 revealed that students slept an average of only 6.5 hours per night, and 93 percent admitted to cheating on tests and homework. The only thing more shocking than the statistics is that stress is seen a given, according to Emma Bishopp, co-chair of the Wellness Committee.
Panel presenter Daniel Robbins, a Lamorinda pediatrician for more than 25 years and the parent of children who graduated from Miramonte, said he's seen a significant increase in patients suffering from stress.
Struck by the fact that bright kids and skilled teachers add up to stressed, frustrated and angry people, Robbins realized stress-induced illness wasn't a "single point" issue, but included parents, unrealistic teachers, and students who text and put themselves center stage 24/7.
"Stress can be formative. Toxic stress, not so good. It's OK for things to not work out well, or for kids to fall down and have to get up. Resilience is good. Family support and love is good."
Realistic thinking and believing that a situation can change is a vital message to deliver to kids who suffer most from toxic stress, said Contra Costa Crisis Center counselor Leslie Garcia, who noted that 70,000 calls come into the help line annually.
The Wellness Committee is building coalitions with other schools in the district and launching initiatives in cooperation with Acalanes administrators and teachers aimed at increasing awareness and breaking stigmas around mental health conditions.
Pushing back against sports coaches who "dictate impossible schedules," increased selectivity applied to kids' volunteer and extracurricular activities and proposals for later start times or to restructure the school day were practices and objectives mentioned by Bishopp and others during the discussion.
Superintendent John Nickerson, seated in the audience, said in response to questions during a Q&A that a task force had begun to consider initiatives to "make the environment better" for students throughout the district.