Anxiety disorders are on the rise among tweens and teens as social media, academic pressures, perfectionistic standards and sexual identity issues become more complicated and stress-filled, experts say.
True anxiety disorders — such as when a young person is terrified of going to school, experiences panic-induced shortness of breath, or fears that he will choke when eating — pose a far greater challenge than everyday stress and worry that goes away, says Dr. John Walkup, head of Lurie Children’s Hospital’s child and adolescent psychiatry department.
These pathological forms of anxiety often stem from biological problems and require professional counseling and/or anti-depressant drugs.
Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) girls ages 13-17 and more than a quarter (26 percent) of boys suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to National Institute of Mental Health data.
The percentages have been rising for at least the past 12 years. In 2005, the percentage of teenagers who reported low mood, low self-esteem, loss of interest in everyday activities and problems with sleep, energy and concentration stood at 8.7 percent, according to data from the journal Pediatrics. That percentage jumped to 11.5 percent in 2014.
Of the afflicted teen-agers, 80 percent receive no treatment, even though the typical onset is at age 10 or 11 when most kids start middle school or junior high school and the more complex classroom and social changes that entails, the data show. That’s because mental health problems still carry a stigma and, in some cases, certain treatments that insurance fails to cover are out of reach of most families, the experts said.
African-American teens have higher rates of anxiety disorders than non-Hispanic whites, and relatively lower odds of using mental health services, the latest National Institute of Mental Health studies show.
“Our culture and our society is beset by anxiety and worry — it’s everything from financial stress to terrorism around the world,” said Mark A. Reinecke, who leads the adolescent anxiety clinic as chief of psychology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Elleis Miranda, a 20-year-old University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign junior from Albany Park, was fortunate that her mother sent her to a therapist starting when she was 10 years old after noticing her specific fears. Miranda, who was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, panicked when her parents left her to stay at a friend or relative’s house overnight; alerted her mom to where the exits were located on buses and in theaters; and felt uncomfortable starting conversations in social settings.
“I was more obsessed with the fact that I needed to be safe, rather than enjoying what was going on around me,” Miranda said.
After the therapist at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System helped her reach step-by-step goals and use breathing techniques, Miranda went to a girls’ summer camp, where she was encouraged to introduce herself to a group, work with a partner and perform in a talent show.
“It allowed me to push myself into doing and trying new things,” she said of the Metro Achievement Center’s all-girls program.
Miranda says she still must deal with anxiety every day, but her hard work has enabled her to gain the skills and confidence to cope.
Social media plays a big role, too.
“It can be incredibly painful” for kids to be excluded or teased or harassed on social media, said Dr. Louis J. Kraus, a national expert on childhood anxiety and chief of child and adolescent psychology at Rush University Medical Center’s psychiatry department.
Children who block a peer from accessing a social media site often hurt the targeted children more than they would by bullying him or her online, Kraus said.
The good news is that people with anxiety can be treated. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most common method.
“It’s about facing your fears, helping people with anxiety see things in a different way and enabling them to understand the costs and benefits of change,” said Liza Suarez, director of the Pediatric Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s a tried-and-true approach.”
Another approach is for young people to accept that they have anxiety and then focus on how they’d rather spend their time and energy, such as with friends, family and ideals that they value, said Val Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist at Loyola Medical Center.
Young people in Chicago have also taken up the fight for greater in-school resources to help anxiety sufferers.
Khadijah Benson and Jeneca Jones, two West Side 18-year-olds, are helping lobby for a bill in the Illinois legislature that would increase funding for services such as mental health counselors, particularly in public schools. It’s part of their involvement in Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a youth organizing collaborative for education and racial justice led by students of color.
Benson, a Prosser Career Academy student who was left homeless for weeks and months at a time when she was 14 after a dispute with her guardian, travels over an hour each way to Howard Brown’s Broadway Youth Center on the North Side to talk with a therapist.
Jones, a student at North Lawndale College Prep, said she relied on friends to help her deal with seeing a close friend standing next to her get shot in the face when she was 11 years old, as well as seeing other peers become victims of gun violence.
“We constantly experience violent acts,” said Jones, who attended the gun-control March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., in March. “Everyone has anxiety issues. My school doesn’t have the resources.”
“We don’t see it as an issue because it’s so normal, which is a really sad thing,” Benson said.
Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.