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In our opinion: Communities must understand anxiety is more than teenage stress

According to the National Institutes of Health, about “32 percent of American teens suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, and about 8 percent have cases that are severe.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, about “32 percent of American teens suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, and about 8 percent have cases that are severe.”
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Are today’s youths genetically predisposed, environmentally exposed or socialized to experience anxiety? While these are essential questions to probe both clinically and culturally, the pervasive ethos of this line of inquiry must be one of validation: The experiences of youths facing anxiety are real and deserve empathetic support from families, friends and communities.

The Deseret News is taking a closer look at anxiety among a young generation: its causes, its symptoms and its effects on the well-being of youths and families. This series raises questions regarding the “nature vs. nurture” factors of anxiety.

As the first two parts of the series have revealed, rates of anxiety among American youths have skyrocketed in recent years. According to the National Institutes of Health, about “32 percent of American teens suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, and about 8 percent have cases that are severe.” Two key points should be taken from this troubling statistic: 1) anxiety is pervasive among teens today, and 2) anxiety disorders, like most other mental health disorders, exist on a spectrum of severity. This spectrum necessitates modulated, empathetic and tailored responses to each individual case. As a result, a host of influencers ranging from friends to families to teachers must be educated and socialized to understand the nuance of this disorder to best meet the needs of those who suffer from it.

To do this, communities must first, and fundamentally, acknowledge that anxiety is a genuine phenomenon. While its sources may be ambiguous, there is no disputing that youths today suffer from the real physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. To invalidate their experience by dismissing anxiety as a limitation of coping or resilience exacerbates the problem rather than getting at the key needs of youths — to be seen, heard and helped. Instead, all must assume a new responsibility to educate themselves about modern anxiety disorders and recognize that participating in meaningful support networks is the best way to assist loved ones struggling with the symptoms.

Doing so will create a more permissive environment for youths to discuss their experiences. Through dialog with trusted confidants and clinically trained therapists, youths will be able to flesh out the varied manifestations of their troubled thoughts and determine the severity of their experience. By treating these conversations with appropriate seriousness, everyone can work to reclaim the disorder as a clinical diagnosis, not simply a universal term to describe stress.

As Deseret News reporting has identified, many teens remain just as uninformed about anxiety disorders as adults, meaning they often colloquially misdiagnose their feelings and emotional responses to events as something more serious than teen angst. Having open conversations with youths about their feelings and educating them on the symptoms of the disorder will encourage a more clear-eyed approach to diagnosis.

The sources of anxiety are multifaceted and difficult to determine, but the response should be clear: love, support and openness to the experiences of youths today will help combat the symptoms and create a healthier society.