A New York Times article from last week asks, “Why are more American teenagers than ever suffering from severe anxiety?” And while millennials have heard this question before, the answer remains the same, for many of us enrolled in college.
In an age of new, consuming pressures from social media and increasing competitiveness in and out of the classroom, and struggles to grapple with rising student debt, the stakes and anxiety for millennials have never been higher.
The National Institute of Mental Health found anxiety to be the most common mental health disorder in the United States, with nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults affected, revealing a cross-country problem deeply embedded in our culture and society. In the age of social media, access to greater information and experiences and more awareness of the impact of mental health, anxiety has emerged on the agenda after decades of struggle.Anxiety emcompasses more than simple butterflies before a presentation or nerves prior to a social outing. It’s often a crippling condition that can render students, and adults, paralyzed by their own fears.
Though other pressing mental health challenges such as depression are now recognized as clinically diagnosable, the real struggle with anxiety lies in stigma and combating misleading narratives.
Anxiety is not confined to the hotbeds of hyper competitive coastal private schools. For example, thousands of adolescents suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from living in high-crime neighborhoods, with rates of PTSD found to be almost equal among residents of Atlanta as in war veterans. And according to The New York Times, “Research points to hereditary genes that predispose children to an anxiety disorder, and studies have found that an overbearing or anxious parenting style can induce anxiety and risk-aversion in kids.”
Second, anxiety does not represent a simple state of mind, but often a lifetime struggle that often entails prescription drugs, therapy and untold pain. With anxiety, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric falls flat for heart-wrenching stories and experiences of a generation.
For Mental Health Awareness Month, the Academic Culture Assembly put up a canvas at McCarthy Quad asking students to detail their own experiences and struggles with mental health. A written symphony to the chaos of our minds soon followed, with notes and memories about fear, loneliness, struggle and suicide filling the page.
In recent years, anxiety has jumped to the forefront of campus dialogue. After years of trial and error, proposal after proposal and countless hours of research and advocacy, Undergraduate Student Government managed to pass a fall break through all legislative bodies. This break, which could be implemented as soon as the 2020-21 academic year, would fall in between weeks eight and 10 of the school year, when data from the Engemann Student Health Center shows a spike in stress levels and need for counseling. At a school with the most instructional days of all top-25 universities in the nation where the constant pressure to perform takes a toll on students, this break comes as a welcome relief.
But our efforts cannot stop there. We must continue these efforts to bring anxiety out of the shadows and into the light of our campus dialogue. And when students become comfortable enough to emerge from the shadows, the resources need to be there to support them in their time of need. The University desperately needs more counselors and institutional resources to combat the growing tide of anxiety, and students, families and the campus and community at large must rethink its priorities, approaches to and conceptions of mental health.
Growing up in the Silicon Valley, I watched as the area bred more than simply innovation — it bred a hyper-competitive culture where we grew inured with the daily stress of performing and even to rising suicides rates. Anxiety became the norm rather than the exception. But no school should have to place 24/7 guards at train stations to prevent the unthinkable. No community should have to see their youth suffering from PTSD. And no student’s mental health should ever be left behind.
It takes resolve, tough conversations and persistence to change the stigmatizing narrative surrounding anxiety, to mobilize resources and support and to continue and further a dialogue about mental health and well-being.
Alec Vandenberg is a sophomore majoring in public policy. His column,“It Takes a Village,” runs every other Monday.