Sophia Bella

Each student we talked to said that pressure at school — where perfection seems to be the only option — exacerbated their mental health struggles.

Burlingame girls report widespread mental health crisis

March 13, 2023

“All of my female friends have struggled with eating disorders, depression, suicidal ideation, self harm, or general anxiety.”

“I personally know multiple females who have attempted or successfully committed suicide.”

“If you aren’t skinny enough, or funny enough, or pretty enough, you can forget about having any chance [of] belonging.”

“Knowing that you cannot change the things that you hate about yourself can cripple you into a depression.”

“The depression builds itself up and crawls out as we get older.”

“We are always expected to be these perfect, picturesque princesses.”

“The main culprit is comparison.”

“When social media is added… it’s hard to win sometimes.”

“A healthy mental state is not the default. It takes work.”


When the B asked female-identifying students to reflect on the mental health crisis in an anonymous survey last month, this is what they said. 


“Girls are always being held to many unrealistic expectations and that can slowly tear us apart.”

“It’s a ridiculous standard to be held up to.”

“It’s really hard to live up to impossible standards.”

Insecurity. Stress. Pressure. Beauty standards. Social media. Expectations. Standards. Expectations. Standards.


In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data finding that 57% of U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 — an almost 60% increase from a decade ago. Burlingame, according to the results of the Burlingame B’s anonymous survey, completed by 80 female-identifying students, is no exception. 

The mental health spiral

“My KN95 mask was drenched with tears”

“How are you?”

When junior Olivia Fleming read that question on a routine form at the doctor’s office in the summer of 2020, she started crying.

“It was hard to get the words out,” Fleming said. “I remember my KN95 mask was drenched with tears. Looking back on it, it’s very surreal.”

By that time, it had been months since Fleming had last seen her friends. Without schoolwork to distract her and without people outside of her family to spend time with, Fleming started spending hours per day on TikTok.

“I would be in bed and my thoughts would just kind of be like a cloud around me,” Fleming said. “There wouldn’t be any place to escape, so then that cloud would just kind of accumulate. And there was no way to get past it. There was no ‘Okay, I have to wake up. I have to go to school.’ There was just ‘I could stay in bed.’”

Fleming was grappling with her identity, while under intense academic pressure, with the added burden of social media — amid a global pandemic. 

“It was just kind of this spiraling effect,” she said.

For senior Emily Geraghty, that spiral started in seventh grade, when her best friend moved to a different middle school. Without friends to turn to, Geraghty was isolated. 

At the time, she also had undiagnosed ADHD, making school work almost impossible, especially outside of a classroom setting. It was obvious that something was wrong, but Geraghty didn’t know how to describe her feelings — and even if she could, she didn’t think it was allowed to.

That reticence began in elementary school, when students nicknamed Geraghty “EM-otional” for showing her feelings. Afraid of being a burden or being teased by the boys who were her playground companions, Geraghty learned early on to feel less, to share less, and to ask fewer questions.

“I think it comes from middle school and elementary school of just not knowing how to deal with it in a healthy way,” Geraghty said. “So I just didn’t deal with it at all.”

Although avoidance worked in the short term, it contributed to nagging, incessant fears about the future — a combination of intense anxiety and depression. 

“I can see no future because I can’t even do my English essay,” Geraghty said. “How can I have a job? How can I go to college? How can I do anything?”

The pandemic made everything worse: Confined to her house, she lost any connection to students or the classroom. Between November 2020 and March 2021, Geraghty didn’t speak to a single person outside of her family.

It was the worst moment of my life. I think in 2020, I had reached a breaking point in myself. That hopelessness. I did not see any type of future for myself.

— Emily Geraghty

“I had those scary thoughts of ‘I don’t want to be here anymore.’” Geraghty said. “And thank God, I was scared. I was still wanting to be here at least a little bit.”

Eventually, Geraghty and Fleming both sought and found help from medical professionals. But their circumstances aren’t unique, and they are far from alone at Burlingame.

In the B’s poll, 57.7% of respondents said they felt sad or hopeless sometimes, frequently, or all the time — identical to the national average recorded by the CDC. While the CDC found that 30% of female high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, 46% of survey respondents said they have experienced suicidal thoughts. 

Although the CDC does not track data on self-inflicted injuries, the B’s survey also found that two-thirds of respondents have considered harming themselves, and 64% know firsthand someone who does harm to themselves. 

Pressure on campus

“Why play the game if I know I can’t win?”

Mental health challenges take no single shape or form. Unlike Fleming and Geraghty, sophomore Joyce Gong rejoiced when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and confined students: She could wake up whenever she wanted; she didn’t have to go outside; she could avoid peers and classmates. But two years later, her isolation made returning to school that much harder.

“I locked myself in and coming out was extremely nerve-racking because I hadn’t been around people for years, and I wouldn’t go outside,” Gong said. “And then just remembering that people in class can look at you and eyes can be on you. It’s extremely nerve-racking.”

At school, Gong said her anxiety became overwhelming.

“You’re shaking. You’re kind of concentrated on everything but what you’re supposed to be concentrated on,” she said. “You’re in your head, you’re overthinking, and you’re also extremely tired because you don’t want this — you’re stressed. It’s really not fun.”

During sophomore year, Gong’s support network “kind of all fell through.” Gong said her home life, schoolwork and social expectations piled up.

“I feel like you can only have two in high school: grades, social life, mental health or sleep,” Gong said. “And I really chose grades and a little bit of sleep. I kind of messed up.”

Each student we spoke to said that school pressure exacerbated their mental health struggles. It felt, both Fleming and Geraghty said, like all or nothing — “I just didn’t care anymore if I wasn’t going to be that great student,” Fleming recalled.

“Why play the game if I know I can’t win?” Geraghty said. “It’s just like if it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough. And there’s no point in trying.”

The academic environment at Burlingame makes the quest for perfection uniquely accessible — and uniquely perilous, they said. Over and over again, students reached the same conclusion in the B’s survey.

“The constant comparison of grades and number of APs between students generates feelings of anxiety and inadequacy,” junior Astrid Carlen wrote.

For girls, the stakes are often even higher. Carlen, for one, said that she lacks the inherent confidence that most boys possess, leaving her unsure and reserved.

“The boys are told they are better. Yet the girls are told they have to be better. They have to work harder,” Geraghty said. 

Eventually, the weight of societal expectations, peer-to-peer comparison, and self-inflicted pressure can become too much to bear.

“We live in an area that has a lot of pressure, to the point that it becomes what you do versus who you are, making it extremely easy to get lost trying to check all the boxes,” wellness counselor Amy Cryan said.

Social media

“I have to be perfect every time I post”

“School pressure is rough,” one student wrote to the B. “And when social media is added… it’s tough to win sometimes.”

While school environments promote academic pressure, many students said social media is even more degrading. Apps like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat bombard girls with unrealistic standards, idealizing certain body types and enabling toxic comparison. 

“Social media has drastically and negatively changed self image and trust,” said licensed therapist Carrie Philpott, who regularly works with teenage girls. “There’s no space in social media to say, ‘I’m having a bad day, I don’t feel good about myself’… there’s nothing like that.”

Senior Alison Saunders, who downloaded Instagram at the start of this year, immediately felt the app take a toll on her mental health. 

“On the app, everyone will friend you, but then you’ll walk past them in the hallway and they’ll act like they don’t know you,” Saunders said.

On the app, everyone will friend you, but then you’ll walk past them in the hallway and they’ll act like they don’t know you

— Allison Saunders

Saunders said she now struggles to be genuine on the app and easily falls into the trap of “feel[ing] like I have to be perfect every time I post.”

Achieving perfection, according to the survey responses, frequently returns to physical appearance — or, as one student wrote, “the pressure to look exactly like every other girl that walks past you.”

“Knowing that you cannot change the things that you hate about yourself can cripple you into a depression that makes you want to hide your body and never want to go out and socialize with others who have a ‘better’ body than you,” another student said. “This can be so isolating and really just destroy a person.”

Rethinking mental health

“I was never taught anything”

It took Geraghty four years to receive an official ADHD diagnosis, along with diagnoses of anxiety and depression. It wasn’t until her cry for help in 2020 that people began to take her seriously. 

“It was a four year long battle with teachers and administrators to get the 504 plan and get the accommodations. And that’s disheartening. It doesn’t feel good,” Geraghty said. “Every time I was asking for help, or looking for help, there was none to find.”

Without a diagnosis or a support system to validate her feelings, Geragthy bottled them up. When she finally spoke to a psychiatrist in 2022, the psychiatrist made her buy an “American Girl Doll: The Feelings” book in order to help her find the words for her feelings.

“These are childish things, but I never learned those things,” Geraghty said. “I was never taught anything about that. So I’m a senior in high school, and learning how to pinpoint which emotion I’m feeling on a printed, laminated card.”

Notably, respondents to the B’s survey said that mental health is no longer shrouded in stigma. But for students like Geraghty and Saunders, that doesn’t always make talking about it easier. 

“It’s a harder topic to bring up, even when you know your parents would be 100% supportive and your friends will be supportive,” said Saunders, who hasn’t told her family about her mental health struggles. “Especially being a people pleaser. It’s like I don’t want to add stress to anyone else.”

Although many students at Burlingame share similar mental health experiences, Gong said others refuse to empathize with their peers, choosing snide remarks over sympathy. Gong, for one, doesn’t let them get away with it.

“I actually say it directly to their face,” Gong said. “I kind of just laugh and say, ‘Oh, you’re so ignorant and privileged.’ And then maybe think more of our perspective.”

To describe existing mental health stigma, Fleming referenced a lyric from “Fill in the Blank” by Car Seat Headrest: “you have no right to be depressed.” At times, Fleming said, she still has to remind herself that depression does not need to be proved to anyone — and that happiness and depression aren’t mutually exclusive. 

“It wasn’t just awful. There were lots of times when I was having fun and I was still depressed, and I still had a lot of these feelings,” Fleming said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything that happened to me because it shaped the person that I am now. But I would not wish it on anyone else.”

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Elise Spenner, Editor-In-Chief

Elise Spenner is a senior at Burlingame High School and is so excited to be this year's editor-in-chief. When she's not reporting on investigative pieces,...

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Sophia Bella, Managing Editor

Sophia Bella is a junior at Burlingame High School, third-year journalism student and design and print managing editor of the Burlingame B. Aside from...

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