Middle, high school students trying to cope with pressure to perform

Student suicide attempts, depression are up in the Roanoke Valley

By Jenna Zibton - Anchor

ROANOKE, Va. - The number of high school students attempting suicide and battling depression are both up in the Roanoke Valley.  It's a concern for parents, school leaders and people in the community.

Kids are trying to cope with a lot of responsibilities, getting good grades, holding down a job and after school activities. It's what many of us went through too but throw in social media and it's an extra pressure.

"I always felt like I needed to be perfect, like I needed to perform perfectly," said Rae Barker, a recovering addict.

To cope with that anxiety, as a 12-year old student at Andrew Lewis Middle School, Rae Barker took her first drink.

"One day I got curious like some kids do and reached for a drink that was in my parents' liquor cabinet," said Barker. "It progressed pretty quickly to you know my mom would go out and mow the lawn and I had choir practice later and I would be going in and taking shots of liquor, I was probably about 14 when that was happening."

She was a straight-A student, singing in the choir and on the forensics team -- all while keeping a big secret.

"I went to school hung over and quite a few times when I went to school high on pills," said Barker. "Nobody knew. My friends didn't even really know the extent of it. I kept it pretty well pretty well hidden."

Today across Botetourt and Craig counties, Roanoke and Salem, students in middle school and high school admit to trying prescription drugs, heroin and alcohol. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey:
  • More than 35-percent percent of high schoolers say they feel depressed, an increase from two years ago.
  • About a quarter of middle school students say they felt depressed.
  • More than one in 10 students have attempted suicide.

Susan Rieves-Austin with Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare who provided us with the survey says the results cannot be correlated with any reasons why youth might report depression, suicide attempts and/or any substance use.

"It's very serious and it definitely needs to be addressed. I hope that parents aren't afraid to ask their teens are you gonna hurt yourself, do you think about hurting yourself, do you think about suicide?" said Sarah Jane Lawrence, Family Service of Roanoke Valley Prevention Program manager who says fitting in with a group is important. "I think the pressure is just hitting them from all the angles that have always been there as well as just the magnitude now that we have with social media and the online pressure as well."

"You don't have to be perfect, you don't have to make straight A's, you don't have to. Just do your best and life is going to be OK. I felt like I had to medicate because of all of that. I think it would be valuable if we could teach kids some coping skills. I didn't learn any of that in class or nobody taught me what anxiety was, nobody taught me why I felt like my chest was tight every time I was going into a test," said Barker.

Coping skills are part of the lessons inside a William Fleming High School class.

"There's a bit of pressure," said Nicholas Adams, a student in 11th grade.

We sat down with three high schoolers who say they feel pressure every day.

"It's hard doing pre-AP classes and AP classes, doing sports and then also coming home to do chores and working," said Destiny Powell who is in 10th grade.

"The work itself it's the most stressful part. The homework, essays all that stuff. It's kind of stressful," said John Wagner, a 10th-grade student.

The William Fleming students are part of the Teen Outreach Program. They say it's helpful to learn what they can do, instead of stressing themselves out or turning to drugs or alcohol.

"I used to make a lot of impulse decisions and now I think before I make actions," said Adams.

"I just take time to step back, look at the day and make sure I'm OK. If I need to take a break I'll take a break. If I need to talk to someone I'll talk to my friends and my parents, my sisters," said Powell.

Barker has been sober for the past 18 months and is now helping others on their journey to recovery.

"I feel like a brand new person. It's incredible to now being on the side where I can help other people to reach my hand out and say 'Hey I know what you're going through, I've been there'," said Barker.

Lawrence says parents should:

  •      Ask questions about who your teen is hanging out with
  •      Set limits about phone time
  •      Look into counseling for your child and possibly the entire family
  •      Stay educated
  •      Tell your kids you love them and care for them

Barker is now leading Young People in Recovery, an alternative to traditional AA groups, with a younger crowd.

The Family Service of Roanoke Valley Prevention Programs are available for middle and high school students and are free. For more information, reach out to Sarah Jane Lawrence at SLawrence@fsrv.org

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