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Perspective

A tender age

Why parents, teachers, and health officials should pay more attention to teenage anxiety.

By Kara Baskin
December 12, 2010

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I spotted a former middle school classmate – an old nemesis, really – at a party last summer. This was the woman (at the time, the girl) who had dictated my moods for the better part of seventh grade. In those days, I sported large plastic glasses and read at the bus stop; she drew alliances and assigned fates. One week she’d let me wedge next to her at the “cool” lunch table, the next she’d banish me to Siberia, alone with a tray of chicken nuggets and Sweet Valley Twins. High above the Back Bay, in a cocktail dress and stilettos, I was suddenly a 12-year-old steeling myself in front of Mrs. McKendry’s homeroom. I wanted to hide.

Adolescence is a treacherous journey. Suicide victims Phoebe Prince and Billy Lucas have illuminated its darkest side. They’re extreme and horrific examples, ostracized kids who didn’t fit in and simply couldn’t take it. But in every high school across the United States, there’s a legion of sufferers acting out quieter dramas. A new study of more than 10,000 teens by the National Institute of Mental Health – the first national study of its kind – concludes that nearly half of respondents, teens between the ages of 13 and 18, have had, during their lifetime, a mood, behavior, or substance-use problem. Eight percent of respondents reported being severely impaired by at least one type of anxiety disorder.

Forty million American adults have anxiety disorders; nearly three-quarters of sufferers will experience their first symptoms by age 21½. Over the years, I’ve worked with anxious teenagers as a high school peer counselor, a college resident assistant, and through Big Brother Big Sister. And, once upon a time, I was one. Which is why I was disheartened to learn that the percentage of youth suffering from mental disorders is even higher than the percentage for the most frequent major physical ailments, including asthma and diabetes. Yet they still don’t get enough attention. In fact, only one-third of child and teen anxiety sufferers get treatment.

With teenagers, it’s easy to write off anxiety symptoms – moodiness, sullenness, withdrawal – as hallmarks of puberty instead of warning signs. It’s a cliche that adolescence is an age of ennui; the continued success of The Catcher in the Rye and John Hughes movies are testament to that. Yet kids with anxiety disorders, something more than teen ennui, don’t have positive or serious role models. Their problems may be dismissed by adults as a phase, and not all anxious kids are outwardly troubled. Burdened by subtle alienation, anxiety sufferers often make things worse for themselves. They avoid social situations and are easily intimidated. The indignities of teenage life, from a casual insult in the cafeteria to exclusion from a party, hit them harder.

High school simply isn’t designed for the anxious. There’s social stratification – gym classes where kids pick teams, popularity contests that masquerade as student elections. In many schools, there’s intense academic competition. People with anxiety disorders tend to strive for perfection and aren’t likely to show weakness by asking for help. Most troublingly, there’s still a stigma attached to mental disorder of any kind.

I began getting panic attacks in my late teens. At the time, I was so concerned with fitting in that I denied my emotions. Nearly 10 years later, I sought the help I needed, only because I was mature enough to do so. Today, my remedies are anti-anxiety medication and sharing my experiences with others. Back then, I hoped that a seat at the right lunch table would transform me into someone new.

So when I spotted my seventh-grade scourge, I took a deep breath and reintroduced myself. “Oh my God!” she cried, after a moment of polite chitchat. “Junior high was a nightmare!” I was shocked. It turned out that she had spent seventh grade feeling a lot like I did. We compared notes and laughed.

Teenagers don’t have the perspective that time affords. Which is why the recent spate of bullying news should also spur parents, teachers, and health officials to be especially vigilant in recognizing symptoms of anxiety: panic attacks, avoidance of social situations, trouble concentrating, unsubstantiated worry. Just as bullying isn’t a required teenage rite of passage, nagging anxiety isn’t a normal part of growing up, either.

Kara Baskin speaks and writes frequently about anxiety. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

  • December 12, 2010 cover
  • Dec. 12 cover