A recent article in the New York Times addressed the dramatic rise of anxiety in today’s youth. In the past ten years, anxiety has replaced depression and is now the number one reason why college students seek counseling. But, the reality is, life-altering anxiety starts years before entrance into college.
Across the country, high school administrators and counselors are dealing with widespread, crippling anxiety throughout the student body. It takes the form of social anxiety, separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. It has become so pervasive that many schools now need to make special environmental accommodations for this growing population.
Anxiety is not a socio-economic disorder. In poor areas throughout our country, anxiety in young people can be as seemingly benign as the need to get a job after school to help feed the family or as intensely disturbing as the necessity to watch out for gun-toting gang members on the way home from school.
In upper socio-economic communities, pressure is what it has been for decades: perfection and success. Today, this pressure is hugely magnified. A young person must be a success across the board in everything from athletics and academics to popularity and extra-curricular activities. The goal is clear; a child must get into the right school. The fear of failure is so intense, on any given day, thousands of young people can literally not get out of bed. Although many factors contribute to this growing phenomenon, many speculate that such fear has taken on such a disastrous dimension because these young people have most likely never actually experienced failure. A good example is seen in team sports, in which everyone gets an award at the end of the season, so no child will “feel bad.” The point that is overlooked is that children need to fail, in order to see that, while momentarily painful, it is not devastating. Life will go on.
Another culprit in this anxiety scenario is the Internet, specifically social media. Teenagers spend hours every day comparing themselves to others. It is the rare adolescent that leaves those hours feeling more positive about themselves. Additionally, cyber-bullying is taking a tremendous toll on today’s youth.
Social media is deleterious in another, less known, aspect that contributes to social anxiety. Prior to participating in events, today’s teen checks to see who will be in attendance, thus ensuring that they will feel comfortable. Again, if a young person never has to deal with awkward situations or any form of social discomfort, the very idea of it becomes a “bigger-than-life” fear.
At Timberline Knolls, we address adolescent anxiety every day. As imagined, simply eliminating the cell phone causes extreme anxiety. We utilize a wide variety of individual and group therapies to help develop healthy coping skills. Doing yoga and practicing mindfulness is highly beneficial. Even eating healthier food, instead of highly processed food from a school vending machine, helps to diminish anxiety. We strongly encourage our families to communicate more, to talk about the concerns and fears that young people have and work to reduce them.
The world we live in can be frightening and complex, which is why steps need to be taken to curb this escalating problem. Otherwise, we could have far too many young people growing up without the ability to cope in the very world in which they must live.