She began to feel the effects of overthinking in the summer of eighth grade, effects that became more prominent once she entered Fair Lawn High School. Quickly, she immersed herself in extracurricular activities, balancing multiple clubs and honor societies on top of her honors and AP classes. All the while, she was obsessed with the future, with impending deadlines, and the notion that every grade below an “A” would mean the end of the world. In response to the stress, her immune system declined, she lost weight, and she started to find small patches of gray in her otherwise dark hair. She was fifteen at the time.
“The time constraint is the worst...it makes me feel like I’m running out of time even when I have no deadlines. I just feel like I have to rush to get everything done or sacrifice half the things that I need or want to do...which only makes me more anxious,” says the now senior.
Unsurprisingly, this student is only one of many teens currently struggling with anxiety. New research shows that anxiety is the most common mental illness afflicting young Americans today. According to the National Institute of Health, over six million young adults have already been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder -- and the numbers are rising.
Beginning in 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has asked incoming college freshmen if they felt “overwhelmed” by all they had to do the previous year. In 2010, 29% reported feeling overwhelmed. Six years later, the number surged to 41%.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders, and causes vary from one individual to the next. But the underlying feature is the same across the board: excessive fear and worry that affects one’s ability to function properly on a daily basis.
“The biggest part of anxiety in general is repetitious thought,” says Michael Russomanno, a licensed social worker and member of Fair Lawn High School’s Child Study Team. “If that thought interferes so much that you can’t sit in class...or you have trouble sleeping, or you have trouble eating -- that’s when you really see the impact.”
For adults and teens alike, this “impact” often manifests in panic attacks and other major depressive episodes, including suicide. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers in the last ten years.
Mental health researchers are struggling to find an explanation for the sudden increase in teenage anxiety. While some blame heightened awareness and diagnosis of the disorders, other cite a complete shift in American culture, one that has everything to do with the digital age and the rising popularity of social media.
Many feel that this change in communication has had a damaging effect on the way teens interact. Texting, online or otherwise, is the chief culprit when it comes to miscommunication. Without the ability to discern facial expressions or body language, both teens and adults are more likely to misinterpret harmless messages as having cruel undertones, causing unintended anxiety.
“If you text, the intent of your words may not be the same as if you can sit and see someone and talk to them...there’s a lot of anxiety because of the indifference of a text,” Russomanno says.
An increasing compulsion to compare oneself with one’s peers through fabricated social media profiles is also seen as a top contributor to teen anxiety.
In response to the influx of anxiety disorders among American teens, the Fair Lawn Board of Education has listed “mental health” as a district goal for the 2017 - 2018 school year. According to Russomanno, the focus is being placed primarily on the elementary and middle schools in the hopes of promoting early intervention.
“The district wants to be more proactive rather than reactive...We could put things in play that help educate about anxiety and depression first, so that maybe there’s more things in place and we don’t get you when you’re totally debilitated,” says Russomanno.
Despite the district’s priority, the FLHS Child Study Team continues to implement its own mental health initiatives. Each year, the group analyzes the number of reported anxiety disorders within the student body and focuses their efforts on decreasing this number in the future. In doing so, they team up with both in-school organizations and the greater Fair Lawn community.
One such initiative, the Mental Health and Suicide Awareness Program, is a joint effort between the Child Study Team and the drama classes. Since 2003, drama students have dedicated one week in February to raising awareness about common mental health issues like anxiety through an hour-long theatrical performance. After viewing the program, freshmen participate in a class discussion guided by members of the Child Study Team.
In recent years, a seminar on the risks of using social media, hosted by the Child Study Team and in cooperation with the Fair Lawn Police Department, has also been introduced to freshmen students. Both the drama program and social media seminar have helped the Child Study Team reach out to students struggling with anxiety and offer guidance.
Though efforts to reduce teenage anxiety are still being perfected, Mr. Russomanno remains optimistic about the future. Increased awareness overall, combined with a surge in online resources geared towards those with anxiety, assures him that mental health issues among teens will be given more attention in upcoming years.
“There’s more of a response for someone to say ‘I need a little bit of help or someone to talk to and I’m going to go look for it’. That makes it all the more powerful as we move along.”