Soaring levels of anxiety among teens and young adults has health experts around the world scrambling for solutions.
Anxiety is now the most common reason for American college students to seek counselling. The American College Health Association found a significant increase – 62% in 2016, up from 50% in 2011 – of students reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year.
In Australia, almost one in four young people now meet the criteria for ‘probable serious mental illness’, and anxiety is the No.1 issue for which they seek help.
Australians do seem to worry a lot these days: a recent Ipsos survey found we are more fearful about security threats, such as terrorism and nuclear attack, than people in most other countries.
But Dr Stephen Carbone, a clinical advisor at mental health organisation beyondblue, says it’s important to distinguish between everyday anxiety and clinical anxiety.
“There are several conditions, such as social anxiety or panic disorder, that are grouped together under clinical anxiety. It’s one of those things that requires sophistication to diagnose properly, however it is definitely up over the last five years,’’ says Carbone.
“It is very common in Australia, especially among young adults and adolescents, where it is the most prevalent mental health condition.’’
For many years beyondblue’s main focus was depression. But then the organisation noticed rates of anxiety were rapidly escalating relative to depression, and the two were often closely linked.
“So we made a decision to talk about anxiety too,’’ says Carbone. “People are now equally aware of both – there is more awareness and understanding. And this increased awareness is part of the reason for the higher incidence of people reporting with anxiety, but there are other social factors too.’’
For example, young women are twice as likely as young men to be sufferers. This is partly because men and women do social connectedness in different ways, says Carbone.
“For women, common issues are self-image, body image concerns, feeling rejected or not part of the group.
“Whereas issues that are common to both sexes include more practical concerns – finishing their education, taking on large Higher Education Contribution Scheme debts to fund a university degree, worrying about career and employment.’’
Tackling the problem
Carbone’s first advice to young people struggling with anxiety is to remember that good mental health starts with good physical health.
This means getting enough exercise, a healthy diet, regular good sleep, and avoiding excessive use of alcohol and other drugs.
“These are the building blocks of positive lifestyle changes,’’ he says.
Keeping a sense of perspective can help us keep anxiety in check. For example, don’t allow yourself to become discouraged by one adverse event.
“Life is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to defuse the sense that it all has to happen now,’’ says Carbone.
“We should have reasonable expectations, encourage kids to do their best without worrying about the outcome, and teach them to be less impatient.
“Things improve over time. It’s not the end of the world if you do badly in one exam, for example – life is very long and you’ll have plenty of time to achieve the things you want to.’’
Rates of anxiety dip quite quickly when people get into their 30s and 40s, suggesting we learn to deal with these stresses better as we become older.
If you think you may have a problem with anxiety, there are online checklists that allow you to self-rate and determine how serious your anxiety is and what to do next.
Dr Carbone says one of the best agencies for the high-risk 15-25 years age group is Headspace, a youth mental health initiative established by the Federal Government.
If you, or someone you know, is suffering call Lifeline on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or go to the beyondblue website.