Anxiety is getting worse among adolescents and young adults. What’s causing it, and what are we doing to address it?
The New York Times covered this issue in-depth in a new feature—noting that “anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services” over the last decade.
While hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers have doubled over the last decade, students have also reported feeling more anxious.
In a survey by the American College Health Association, students reporting feelings of “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year grew from 50% in 2011 to 62% in 2016.
In another survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, college students who reported feeling “overwhelmed by all I had to do” in the past year grew from 18% in 1985 to 41% in 2016.
One surprising observation made by Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, labeled “privileged youths” as among the “most emotionally distressed young people in America,” according to the NYT.
These kids are “incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” due to the “relentless” pressures of school, extracurricular activities, and friends. “Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up,” explains Luthar. “The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”
Other factors affecting young people’s mental states are social media and the inability to cope with reality.
Kids and mental health experts interviewed by the Times agreed overall that social media is having a negative impact. “I don’t think we realize how much it’s affecting our moods and personalities,” said one college student who is in treatment for anxiety. “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”
It’s not that shocking that social media has had this effect on young people, especially. It made the anonymous college student more self-conscious and judgmental of his self-worth based on his online presence.
Even Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who was at first skeptical of the social media connection, stated, “The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental health issues.”
In response, some schools have tried protecting kids with severe anxiety by offering them special privileges and safe spaces. School administrators and teachers tell the Times that this young generation has a real problem with “resiliency”—and are not “equipped to problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively.”
Psychotherapist Lynn Lyons is among those who say this approach is hurting kids more than helping them in the long run. “Anxiety is all about the avoidance of uncertainty and discomfort,” she tells the Times. “When we play along, we don’t help kids learn to cope or problem-solve in the face of unexpected events.”
It’s better to prepare kids for the real world—which won’t offer safe spaces or be as forgiving or understanding, says Lyons.