It has been quite a few days of 2018. I’m dealing with some health stuff, my kids are back in school, and we all recently found out about President Monson (prophet of the LDS Church) died.
So the year is off to a start, I guess. It should be interesting to see what all pans out!
Teens and Anxiety
Last night, I read an article from October of last year in The New York Times Magazine called, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety.” I highly recommend that everyone take a few minutes to read the article themselves. I have been asked about teens and anxiety before while promoting my book. This article, I feel, was an excellent analysis of the current situation.
The article talked about, as the headline suggested, severe anxiety—not just being slightly nervous but actually having debilitating fears and often accompanying physical problems that made it impossible or very difficult for individuals to remain functioning in normal ways. Jake, one student the article focused on, was even hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
I appreciated the honesty of the article and how in-depth writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis went into the stories of the anxiety sufferers, telling how, for example, not every day was horrible and anxiety filled. Sometimes people think that having a mental illness has to be all or nothing—you must feel terrible all the time or you don’t have a “real” case. But that simply isn’t true.
In the article, economic and social factors potentially triggering or affecting anxiety were also discussed, as were common themes of the worries—from OCD concerns with germs or eating, to terrorism, to social anxiety concerns. A large portion of the article discussed the very real and meaningful factor of technology, acknowledging the negative affects of having access to seeing what others are doing at all times and the ease of comparing one’s self to others. In addition, the article talked about phones being used as an “avoidance strategy” or a way for teens with anxiety to hide or retreat from dealing their mental illness. According to the CBT courses I’ve taken, avoidance is not the answer and makes the anxiety worse.
Treatment Programs and CBT
The article also referenced back to a treatment program called Mountain Valley, where some of the individuals referenced attempted to seek care. But in doing so, it highlighted the shocking truth about lack of access to care for teens and others with mental illness. Mountain Valley, according to the article, “costs $910 a day.” Not many individuals would be able to afford this kind of care! One story told of a teen whose mother had to sell their home in order to afford it.
Because of this, many teens simply cannot get the help they need. In addition, adults don’t often take the anxiety seriously or do not understand or utilize the best methods to help their child. In this way, I appreciated how the article addressed behavior therapy.
It discussed cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, giving examples of how therapists worked with teens to help them address and “talk back” to their fears. Of course, this type of therapy (that I have utilized with my OCD as well) is difficult. It requires an individual to be willing to be uncomfortable. The author of the article acknowledged a fascinating point that therapists sometimes don’t want to make their patients (esp. children or teens) “uncomfortable”—they want to help them “feel better.”
Making Teens Feel “Safe”
Therapists aren’t alone in this; the article discusses how difficult it is for parents and schools to address and help students with anxiety. Parents don’t want to send their children into a panic attack, and schools want the teenagers to simply make it through the door and not avoid coming to class. As a result, however, many times these “support figures” actually enable the individual with anxiety, allowing those fears to remain and increase in strength by giving them “safe spaces” and allowing them to do what “they need to do” to live with their anxiety.
This type of “support” is actually often counterproductive when it comes to helping the teen overcome anxiety. Really, CBT and exposure therapy are the types of treatment that will most likely help. However, it was stated in the article by Stephen Whiteside of the Mayo Clinic that children and teens are more likely to be given medication than therapy, especially exposure therapy.
So What Now?
Don’t get me wrong. It is so hard. I know! I would rather take a pill than have to do exposures. I’m on medication right now and haven’t been to therapy for awhile for various reasons. I have no right to cast stones. But I must say that it is so essential for parents, teachers, and leaders of youth to understand how to best treat anxiety. Read the books. Get the information you need. Go to therapy with your teenager if you can.
Understand what will make their anxiety worse—actually—and avoid doing that. Don’t try to shield your child from all that their anxiety is telling them to fear because that is not helping. Yes, it is counterintuitive. I know that. So do the psychologists. That’s why you need to understand and do your homework rather than just shrugging your shoulders and blaming the behavior of severely anxious children and teens on hormones, hoping it just goes away. Start by being their advocate, encourage them to get help, and then assist them as they take on the advocate role for themselves. It’s a battle, yes, so help them rather than make it harder.
Have you read the article yet? What did you think?
Photo of me being interviewed for a training project at OCD Con in San Francisco.