86 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2015 | BETHESDAMAGAZINE.COM
JTheir response surprised him. “When they finally opened up to me, they explained, ‘You’ll end up where you’ll end up and you’re going to be OK,’ ” he says. STUDENTS IN THE BETHESDA area describe high school as a “pressure cooker.” They say they’re often at the breaking point as they juggle college- level classes, play sports and participate in extracurricular activities—all in pur- suit of college admission. The intensity of the competition faced by today’s teens was highlighted in June’s
news reports about a Korean student at
Fairfax County’s top-ranked Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology who felt so much pressure to be
successful that she faked acceptances to
Harvard and Stanford.
According to a 2014 American Psychological Association (APA) survey,
teens feel more stress during the school
year than adults do on a regular basis.
Eighty-three percent of the more than
1,000 teens surveyed said that school
was “a somewhat or significant source
of stress.” Nearly 60 percent reported
that “managing their time to balance all
activities is a somewhat or very significant stressor.” And 36 percent reported
feeling tired and nervous or anxious.
Parents have taken notice. A 2013
survey conducted by National Public
Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public
Health found that nearly 40 percent of
parents said their high school students
“experienced a lot of stress,” with nearly
25 percent saying that homework was the
“Especially in our area, a lot of stu-
dents have this idea they have to be
perfect to get into a school,” says Jodi
Edmunds, director of counseling ser-
vices at Walter Johnson High School in
Bethesda. “Everyone is trying to keep up
with each other. They’re not really doing
what’s right for them.”
Local school administrators say they
are seeing more students diagnosed
with anxiety disorders than ever before.
And the suicides of several local teens in
recent years—including a June graduate
of Thomas S. Wootton High School in
Rockville in the summer of 2014, a student at Walter Johnson in January, and
a seventh-grader at Col. E. Brooke Lee
Middle School in Silver Spring in February—have raised concerns among
local educators, parents and students
Mental health experts are quick to
point out that school stress is not a leading indicator for suicide, which usually is
the result of deeper mental health issues
and family problems. And they say that
experiencing some stress can be a good
thing, motivating students to achieve.
Still, too much can push some students
over the edge, and that’s causing worry.
“There’s an alarming number of suicides and self-harm…and you have to
wonder how much of it is all the stress
these kids are under,” says psychologist
and author Mary Alvord, who has offices
in Silver Spring and Rockville and has
contributed to the APA’s public education guides on resilience and stress in
children and teens.
Students say they break down in
tears because they can’t finish a night’s
worth of homework—or don’t show
up for a test because they are too anx-
ious, opting instead to take a more diffi-
cult makeup exam. It’s become routine,
year at Walt Whitman High School in
Bethesda, and he’s busy cataloging his
accomplishments so he can apply for
A passionate drummer, he’s captain
of the Whitman drumline team and
performs with a jazz combo he founded
with friends. He’s a member of Whitman’s water polo team and is vice president of the Student Government Association. He also is working on a project to
earn the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest
in Boy Scouting.
All of this while earning a 4. 3 weighted
GPA, learning to drive, studying for the
SAT and working at least 12 hours a week
at Bethesda Bagels, a job he has held
since he was 14.
By all accounts, Joe should think of
himself as accomplished. But that’s not
how this student at one of Montgomery
County’s highest-performing public high
schools sees himself.
“I’m no Harvard-bound student,” he
says. “I’m a pretty average guy, pretty
And because he feels that way, Joe was
starting to lose confidence last spring
that he would be able to live up to what
he believed were his parents’ expecta-
tions: getting into his top choice for col-
lege—the highly selective U.S. Naval
Academy in Annapolis.
So Joe continued to push himself,
spending more than 20 hours each week
writing music and creating formations
for the drumline. He finally reached a
point one night when he says he “kind
of cracked under the pressure.”
“I told my parents that if I didn’t get
into this school that I was a disappoint-
ment,” he says.