Last week The New York Times ran a huge (even by New York Times’ standards) article on adolescent anxiety. It was scary yet familiar. Stories I’d heard from friends and acquaintances suddenly fit into a framework. Their young loved ones live in fear of the world.
You’ll recall that a week or so ago I countered a popular article that claimed the lack of play could be what lead the Vegas shooter to do his evil deed. I said that with 330,000,000 people in America and only one Vegas shooter, you couldn’t say that X always (or even often, or even directly) led to Y. So I don’t think these very anxious students profiled by the Times represent an entire generation, and I can’t say that our society’s insistence on overprotection is what caused these sad cases. But it does seem that something is going on, so here are some excerpts from the piece by Benoit Denizet-Lewis:
Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.
Those numbers — combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall — come as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students. While it’s difficult to tease apart how much of the apparent spike in anxiety is related to an increase in awareness and diagnosis of the disorder, many of those who work with young people suspect that what they’re seeing can’t easily be explained away. “We’ve always had kids who didn’t want to come in the door or who were worried about things,” says Laurie Farkas, who was until recently director of student services for the Northampton public schools in Massachusetts. “But there’s just been a steady increase of severely anxious students.”
What’s happening, according to the article, is not simply a matter of perfectionist expectations, or hovering parents. Whatever “it” is — the source of anxiety — has become internalized:
It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure (and therapists who work with teenagers sometimes do), but several anxiety experts pointed to an important shift in the last few years. “Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”
The antidote probably is complex, but one element must be giving the kids time to NOT be in student mode. Having some kind of real world job is one good thing — a young person who feels part of society, contributing to it, seems less likely to be terrified of it.
And also extremely valuable is some free time for young people to do things on their own, just out of curiosity and fun, not to pad a resume or please an adult. Of course sometimes interests and external success do overlap — a kid can love piano and get a scholarship. But if a kid loves the kazoo — that’s worth their time, too. (Just, God willing, not in my apartment.)
No one thing guarantees a well-adjusted or mal-adjusted human. But the benefits of free time, free play are some real world responsibility are hard to dispute. – L.