Bellevue students empower peers with stress management skills

Campaign tackles students’ anxiety within high-achieving academic culture.


UW News Lab

Before two Newport High School students launched a program to teach their peers about stress management, they had to prove the training was even needed.

Sophomore Rosie Huang and junior Sachi Madan knew from their own experiences all about Newport’s high-achieving academic culture. Their administrators, advisors and even classmates, however, took some convincing.

“People don’t seem to realize the magnitude of the issue,” Huang said.

That inspired the young women to turn their DECA public relations project into a school-wide mental health curriculum. With the help of 30 student-teachers and 48 English classrooms, they taught stress management basics to the entire campus in one day.

Newport’s DECA chapter is part of an international business competition dedicated to student career development. The public relations event challenged students to develop a campaign that addressed a problem in their school or community.

“The topic that we chose was mental health,” Huang said, “because it seems to be an issue in our school that remains largely unaddressed.”

Bellevue schools saw a notable increase in student suicide interventions in the first month of the 2017-2018 school year. The 66 reported incidents equaled almost half the total from the previous year.

The data underscored Huang and Madan’s concern that their school wasn’t doing enough to help students manage workload pressure and anxiety.

“There’s a huge culture of people taking a lot of AP classes not really considering that they need to take a break sometimes,” Madan said.

The students focused their lesson plans on two main goals: helping peers understand the impact of good and bad stress and empowering them with options when they feel overwhelmed.

“Some stress is actually OK, we need some of that,” explained James J. Mazza, professor of educational psychology and director of the School Psychology program at the University of Washington. “It can be helpful to us to get us motivated, energized.”

“It’s when our system can’t handle the amount of stress that’s there and we start experiencing mental health difficulties,” Mazza continued.

Jaclyn Lally works with Mazza on his research into effective preventative mental health care for young adults. She noted that teenagers are especially at risk because their brains are still developing in areas that adults rely on to manage stress.

“What might be just a little stress for adults can feel like a lot of stress for adolescents,” Lally said.

Marketing teacher Jerry Borth has been the DECA advisor at Newport High School for 17 years. Out of the 50 or so DECA projects he’s seen during his tenure, this effort is easily in his top three, he said.

As Borth sees it, the academic pressure his students take on would be enough to challenge even the highest-functioning adult.

It’s not unusual for students to take between three and six AP classes in a year, according to Borth, plus basic graduation requirements. Each AP class is the equivalent of a five-credit college course.

“It’s really a pretty catastrophically huge workload,” Borth said.

In extreme cases, Borth has seen doctors’ notes ordering the school to switch students from AP to regular courses mid-semester due to stress. More often in his classrooms he sees severe sleep deprivation, chronic headaches and stomach irritation.

Because the symptoms are so universal at Newport, they generally go unnoticed.

“A lot of students didn’t know they were under great stress because they look at themselves, they look at all their friends, and they just figure ‘oh, this is normal,’” Borth said.

Since the stress management class finished in mid-November, the DECA advisor has noticed a shift in the way students perceive their own stress.

“That’s what’s been really awesome about this entire project — it came to fruition,” Borth said. “It’s being impactful. It’s making a difference.”

Huang and Madan both experienced their own personal growth through the program.

“Going through this project was also a wake-up call for me,” Madan said via email. “I realized that my procrastination and poor sleep schedule was ultimately harming me.”

For Huang, the biggest take-away was the knowledge that she wasn’t alone.

“Knowing I wasn’t the exception,” she said via email, “and it was actually more uncommon to be completely mentally healthy, was a nice realization for me.”

Stress management tips and resources:

• Deep breathing meditation for one minute: visualizations help regulate the breath and time the exercise

• Square breathing: breath in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breath out for four seconds, repeat four times

• Power posing: stand in a confident or powerful posture for at least a minute

• Getting help: let someone know you are struggling

• Reach out to school counselors and academic coaches

• Teen Link (800-833-6546,, trained peers are available every evening from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. to listen and help young people ages 13-20 with any issue, big or small.

Youth Eastside Services (425-747-4937,, low or no cost family mental health clinic servicing East King County

National 24-hr Hotlines – Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255,; Crisis Text Line (741741,; Domestic Violence Hotline (800−799−7233,

In the week before finals, Huang, Madan and the rest of their team made encouraging posters and put them up around the school, reminding students to practice their new skills and seek help if they feel overwhelmed. Photo courtesy of Rosie Huang

In the week before finals, Huang, Madan and the rest of their team made encouraging posters and put them up around the school, reminding students to practice their new skills and seek help if they feel overwhelmed. Photo courtesy of Rosie Huang