On October 11, 2017, an article highlighting the increase in the number of teenagers suffering from severe anxiety appeared in the NY Times Magazine. Since it was published and shared throughout social media platforms, several parents and colleagues have forwarded it along. As a superintendent and someone known in the community as an advocate for the needs of youth and parent education, I often receive “Did you see this?” inquiries. I had seen this particular article almost as soon as it was published.
The topic--severe anxiety in teens--is not unfamiliar to me. As a middle and high school teacher and administrator, I have worked with scores of young people impacted by anxiety, from common teenage angst all the way to life-altering, debilitating anxiety. I also have a personal connection to anxiety; as a teenager, I was diagnosed with anxiety myself, having experienced some challenging trauma as a middle school student. I share this not to make the issue about me. Rather, I share it to convey the empathy with which I come to this issue.
The NY Times piece highlights a reality that our educators experience daily. Our young people are incredibly susceptible to the lies anxiety tells, the insecurity it breeds, and the fears it attempts to hardwire into our children. As an educator, I am the first to admit that schools, in general, are often not well equipped to respond to the needs of children struggling with anxiety. As a leader of a gifted team of teachers and administrators, I regularly witness our educational professionals asking important questions about what more we can do to accommodate the needs of children battling anxiety, without enabling negative habits that only serve to exacerbate the problem. The challenge is not easy. Schools cannot do it alone.
While there are no easy answers, I cherish the opportunity to share what I know to be true about anxiety and young people with our parents, educators, and communities as we come together to support our children and their families who are struggling with anxiety.
Anxiety in youth is not new. My own experience is one small illustration of a truth that is sometimes missed in the urgency of the current debate around anxious youth. Youth have always been more susceptible to anxiety; it’s a reality of the human experience. However, youth today are under increasing pressure, including changes in environment and culture, that exacerbate the impacts of an already anxious time of life.
Anxiety is an equal-opportunity illness. Some may think that anxiety is more prevalent in certain communities: among the poor, among children exposed to violence, or among residents living in urban centers, as examples. The reality is that anxiety affects children and teens across all demographic subgroups. No one is immune. Even those youth that society perceives as “having it all” experience concerning rates of anxiety and stress. As the NY Times piece highlighted, “privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America.” We must let go of any assumptions we might hold regarding who does or doesn’t or who should or shouldn’t suffer from anxiety.
Social Media didn’t create youth anxiety, but it greatly exacerbates it. While not new, anxiety among our youth is enabled, elevated, and made more complicated by social media, which has dramatically shifted the norms around privacy, introspection, and self identification. The ‘normal’ human, angsty, emotional, insecure experience of being a teenager is played out in real-time for all to see--and to judge, “like” or dislike, criticize, make fun of, and tear apart. In an effort to save face and create the “self” most likely to receive approval from peers and society, many of our children are engaged in a game of self preservation where there are no winners. Positive uses aside, social media sites that have become ubiquitous such as Instagram and Snapchat, as well as more insidious sites like askfm, kik, and whisper, are hotbeds of bullying, narcissism, and harassment where the natural insecurities of teens are often exposed and exploited. A pragmatist, I don’t promote a luddite response to social media; however, every parent should be wary of when to allow non-educational social media into their child’s life and closely monitor social media use.
Schools must be part of the solution.
Schools cannot focus solely on teaching academics. Today’s youth and their parents need the engagement and commitment of school leaders, teachers, and support staff in the battle against anxiety. Educators cannot simply cover their eyes and close their ears to the role schools plays in increasing anxiety and the role educators play in addressing the impacts of anxiety. It’s not enough to say, “When I was in school, we had homework and stress and we just dealt with it.” A healthy dose of empathy among educators is needed to effectively support student social-emotional needs. In the district I serve, Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley, where anxiety and stress among teens is an ever-increasing challenge, our staff are being trained on Restorative Practices in the classroom as one way of providing our youth with tools around battling stress and anxiety.
Children need sanctuaries.
After recognizing that anxiety was impacting my well-being in high school, I was fortunate to have two adults in my high school who created a sanctuary for me--a place without judgement, a place to retreat and find quiet or a listening ear. Not every child who suffers from anxiety is so fortunate. Our homes, our schools, and our communities need to prioritize the informal and formal places of refuge for our youth suffering from anxiety and stress. A great place to start is, once again, a place of empathy. Begin by asking yourself, “If I were a young person in my home/school/community suffering from persistent stress and anxiety, where could I turn? Who would help me? Where could I find quiet, peace and/or a listening, non-judgemental ear?” If you can’t answer that question with at least three different clear options, maybe it’s time to take action to create such a sanctuary.
Don’t dismiss it, but also don’t give anxiety the power it seeks. Help is out there.
Anxiety thrives on silence. Persistent anxiety is about fear and control. Children suffering from anxiety need to know the signs and need to be encouraged to seek help. It is precisely in the taking control back and AWAY from anxiety that anxiety loses its power. When youth can claim control back, they can begin to conquer it. When the caring adults in the lives of our youth empower and support those struggling with anxiety to take control, we offer hope. Don’t dismiss the signs and don’t dismiss those youth who are struggling by minimizing their experience. However, DO empower them to name it, face it, fight it, and get to the other side of anxiety victorious and with the necessary coping skills for future success when anxiety again rears its ugly head as it almost always does.
In the Menlo Park area, where I am Superintendent, we are fortunate to be served by SafeSpace, a recently opened center for youth to find support for anxiety and other mental health issues. Other places to look for resources that help families tackle anxiety include:
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Freedom from Fear
National Institute of Mental Health
I feel grateful to lead a district that is partnering with parents and empowering students. This month, in my own district, we are featuring a speaker on this topic as part of our parent education Speaker Series. Dr. Jacob Towery, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist and Adjunct Clinical Faculty at Stanford University, and author of The Anti-Depressant Book: A Practical Guide for Teens and Young Adults to Overcome Depression and Stay Healthy, will speak from the heart to parents about what they can do to help their children when signs of anxiety and depression arise. You may have noticed changes in your own child that are concerning, and even if you haven’t, the more adults in our community that are aware of the signs of anxiety and depression and of ways to offer help to kids struggling with them, the more places of sanctuary and support there will be for all our children. Dr. Towery notices in his own practice the increasing number of youth seeking help for anxiety, and brings his compassion and expertise to the Speaker Series on Wednesday, November 8, at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School. All are welcome to attend; please find details here. You may be the safe adult to whom another parent’s child feels comfortable reaching out; let’s all be prepared to give youth the support they need.
It really does take a village to raise a child. In today’s age, those words have never been more true.
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.