Teens and anxiety: What can we do?

For high school seniors, these are the worst of times. They’re running to their mailboxes daily, hoping to find a “fat envelope” inside that tells them they’ve been accepted to the college of their choice – and simultaneously dreading that they’ll find a thin envelope instead, one that contains a one-page letter of rejection. They’re on anxiety overload.

These are the worst of times for high school juniors, too, because they know they’re on deck. In a few short months, the worries will be all theirs as they suffer through the ordeal of picking a college and hoping to be accepted. They’re ramping up their anxiety to prepare for stress overload.

And that sad part is, for some students, things don’t always get better once they’re out of high school. Recent reports of sexual assault, fraternity misadventures, binge drinking and drug abuse suggest that it’s the worst of times at our universities and colleges, too. The anxiety has no end.

As all children have before them, our kids are growing up. But the mental health issues they face as young adults appear to be more insidious than ever. Teenagers are overstressed about their future, about sex, about alcohol and drugs; they’re under increased pressure from their schools, their parents and their peers about what their goals in life should be; and they’re presenting very visible signs of a mounting public health crisis that needs immediate attention.


• The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 75 percent of mental health conditions begin by age 24; that 25 percent of young adults between 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness; and that more than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past year – including more than 11 percent for anxiety and more than 10 percent for depression.

• The suicide rate among college students is rising. The Boston Globe, citing data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported that the suicide rate among college-age people has increased from 11 to 11.6 out of 100,000 in the last decade. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 6 percent of college students reported seriously considering suicide in 2011. And in 2012, the last year for which statistics were available on the CDC website, suicide was the No. 2 cause of death in people between the ages of 15 and 24.

• According to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 80 percent of college students drink alcohol, and about half of them are binge drinkers – even though drinking is illegal in the U.S. under the age of 21. Even worse, more than 150,000 students a year develop an alcohol-related health problem, and between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of students said they tried to commit suicide in the last year due to drinking or drug use.

• A nationwide survey conducted by the NIH four years ago found that about 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some time in the previous year. The CDC reported that same year that antidepressants were the third most common prescription drug taken by Americans of all ages, and that the rate of antidepressant use in the U.S. had increased nearly 400 percent over 14 years.

• A study conducted at New York University suggests that the odds of a student having unprotected sex double between freshman and senior year of college.

• Though the accuracy of the statistic has been disputed, it has been widely reported that one in five women in college will be sexually assaulted while in school.

Of course, suicide, substance abuse, mental illness, sexual assault and unprotected sex among youngsters have been problems throughout human history. But it’s clear that things are worse now than ever, thanks to the omnipresence of social media – and the cyberbullying that comes with it. It’s nearly impossible for young people to suffer in silence anymore. Now their condition is well known to everyone – their peers, their parents, their teachers – and that, in turn, just adds to the seriousness of their anxiety disorder or depression.

The pressure we’re putting on our young adults – and the pressure those same young adults are putting on themselves – leads to the inevitable question: What can we, as concerned Americans, do to bring down rising rates in mental illness, suicide, substance abuse, sexual assault and aberrant behavior among our next generation of adults?

We can do these, for a start:

  • We need to develop better ways to recognize signs of anxiety and depression in our schools and families, and we need to become more proactive to accomplish early intervention.
  • We need to become more responsible in our use of social media. We must establish standards that prevent cyberbullying and the increase of social pressures.
  • We need to press our colleges and state governments to consider raising – or lowering – the legal drinking age, in order to lessen the appeal of binge drinking behind closed doors.

We could well be at a crossroads. If we don’t take action, what kind of new generation are we creating?