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Q&A: The young and the anxious, anxiety disorders and youth

Three TCSPP faculty weigh in on the anxiety rates for today's youth.

According to recent statistics, 12 percent of Millennials have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, almost twice as many as those in the Baby Boomer generation. Even more telling, 30 percent of working Millennials have general anxiety of some kind, and an American College Health Association study showed that anxiety regularly afflicts 61 percent of college students.

Is our world that much more anxiety-inducing? Do the increased rigors and pressures of expected exceptionalism in school, sports, and other extracurricular activities put young people at risk for these disorders? Maybe growing up with helicopter parents has made them ill-equipped to handle stress? Being tuned in and turned on with the internet and social media always at our fingertips could also contribute. Or perhaps our increased understanding of mental health disorders has allowed professionals to catch the signs and symptoms of these ailments more readily than ever before. In truth, it’s more than likely a combination of countless factors such as these that have affected the mental state of an entire generation of young people.

We asked three members of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology faculty—Drs. Jennifer DeFeo, Eleazar Eusebio, and Heather Sheets—to weigh in on what makes our youth so anxious.

{INSIGHT}: Why do you think young people are experiencing anxiety in record numbers? Have you seen evidence of this in The Chicago School classroom?

Heather D. Sheets, Psy.D.: I’ve seen a huge majority that feel a need to perform to other people’s expectations, which can be incredibly stressful. They are the first generation raised exclusively in the technology and information age. They have unprecedented access to information—a constant stream of stimuli that connects them to unlimited educational resources via the internet, but also to a wide variety of mature or complex content that they sometimes lack the context or life experience to understand. Dr. Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before has done extensive research in this area. She has found that increased exposure to information supplemented by decreased meaningful, one-on-one interactions can increase dissatisfaction and contribute to
depression and anxiety.

Jennifer DeFeo, Psy.D.: I see the impact of technology in the classroom, where most students rely heavily on the use of online platforms to provide structure and outline expectations. While my generation was expected to develop our own structures and processes to keep track of deadlines, take notes in class, etc., this generation wants these things very clearly outlined for them. Moving from the “pencil and paper” to the “computer/internet” approach has been difficult for some instructors, furthermore resulting in unintentional anxiety provocation in students.

Eleazar Eusebio, Psy.D.: There is an interesting condition that I believe says a lot about the Millennial generation. “Duck Syndrome” describes those that, from a distance, look very calm and pleasant, but on the inside are completely stressed out. Outside of the classroom, money and work are the most significant sources of stress for about 75 percent of Millennials, mostly because there has been some instability in the job market and U.S. economy during the years they have been trying to establish themselves in a career. The Millennial generation could be the first to make less money than their parents, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Achievement pressure and higher performance expectations on top of being raised in a time of increasing economic instability, low paying jobs, and unreliable work opportunities only contributes to compounding anxiety.

{INSIGHT}: Can you elaborate on how social media and the oversaturation of news and information impacts these anxiety levels?

Eleazar Eusebio, Psy.D.: One survey from 2015 found that 88 percent of Millennials get their news from Facebook. They are getting exposed to an unending procession of anxiety inducing reports on violence in society, the grim economy, negative outlooks on future employment, and other dismissive news that are certain to stress out any reader.

Jennifer DeFeo, Psy.D.: Yes, with social media, readers have to understand the underlying goals of the source of news. The goal is not always to inform, but to provoke a response, which can lead to more engagement and clicks. The media, even prior to the internet and social media, has aimed to stir the pot. My concern is that youth don’t fully understand how to read the subtext of information found on social media, and are therefore more prone to be provoked by damaging, anxiety-inducing materials. Videos, in particular, depicting horrific acts of violence—animal abuse, child abuse, and, prevalent today, police brutality—can be very damaging to a young psyche. Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 does not allow for diagnosing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Acute Stress Disorder from only being exposed to acts through social media, I truly believe there are Millennials suffering from PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder from witnessing these incidents online. They are not receiving appropriate treatment, which can compound the problem over time.

{INSIGHT}: What can the mental health community do to provide better resources and better serve the needs to this generation?

Eleazar Eusebio, Psy.D.: A shift in community resources, including outreach programs that help people from minority demographics, are highly beneficial to this generation. Hiring non-white therapists of varying backgrounds that speak diverse languages would also help. In schools and universities, administration can develop more opportunities for students and teachers to work closely together, giving them the chance to connect one-on-one, something we know is lacking for this younger generation, but that is vital for mental health. Since approximately half of diagnosable, lifetime mental disorders begin by age 14, and three-fourths by age 24, improved early detection and treatment of these illnesses are a cornerstone of a healthier future.

Heather D. Sheets, Psy.D.: Taking the toll of technology into consideration is vital as well. Mental health professionals have started including assessment of technology and impact of technology on people’s lives. The DSM now carries a diagnosis related to internet and gaming addictions, which is a positive start.

{INSIGHT}: What can parents do to support their children and help them learn to manage stress in a healthy way?

Eleazar Eusebio, Psy.D.: For healthy stress management, I think modeling an environment that is more focused on providing value to the community rather than seeking worth through achievement alone would go a long way. It’s not about self-promotion and achieving everything possible all of the time. The message is that it’s about making the right choices to feel good about yourself and how you are contributing to your community. Also, allowing children to explore their interests more freely by having them make their own decisions is considered a healthy approach for parents who want to raise confident, independent, and self-reliant children.

{INSIGHT}: Do you think today’s youth really are more prone to mental health issues or are we just diagnosing them more frequently and urgently?

Jennifer DeFeo, Psy.D.: I think the symptoms of mental health issues are the same, but the core underlying issues of why and how they are being expressed are different. One diagnosis that I will say is and has been over-diagnosed is conduct disorder. Working with children in East Los Angeles, where gangs are prevalent, I noticed that clinicians often failed to appropriately assess trauma. Because a child was displaying aggressive and defiant behavior, they would automatically assume they had a conduct disorder. But their underlying problem was that they were witnessing, on a daily basis, violence and threats to their safety. Unlike adults that have the language and ability to discuss their feelings and thoughts, children and adolescents are limited so they act out their thoughts and feelings. Therefore, what is actually trauma, depression, or anxiety gets misdiagnosed. This not only marginalizes and stigmatizes the child, it also leads teachers, parents, and other individuals to treat the kid in a “conduct disorder” manner. Children internalize that and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

{INSIGHT}: Any final thoughts?

Eleazar Eusebio, Psy.D.: I think this is a real predicament in our society today, but one that needs to be examined in context. While physical and mental health has shown a decline in this age group, it appears to be in large part a manifestation of our society and culture interplaying with difficult economic times and higher expectations for our youth rather than some great phenomenon that our younger generations are not as mentally fit. I believe both the Millennial generation, and Generation Z right behind them, are comprised of incredible problem solvers who are inherently equipped with the skills to navigate and utilize their resources. When you supplement these skills with the philosophy and hope of community activism and social equality toward which they gravitate, you have a generation of resourceful activists and community-based citizens who tend to look for solutions to remedy their generational setbacks, rather than those who sit back and watch from the sidelines. I believe when they have outlets for their anxiety that are healthy and community driven, this may be one of the most influential generations we’ve ever seen.

defeoJennifer DeFeo, Psy.D., is interim associate chair for The Chicago School’s Marital and Family Therapy Department. She has specialized in working with severely mentally ill populations in both inpatient and outpatient care, as well as in the New York State psychiatric hospital system. Her specialty extends to at-risk youth, children and adolescents, families, gangs, LGBT, and HIV/AIDS populations. Dr. DeFeo presently has a private practice in Irvine, Calif., where she serves the severely mentally ill, adolescent male, men’s issues, LGBT, and depressive populations.

eleazarEleazar Eusebio, Psy.D., is associate professor and chair of the faculty council at TCSPP’s Chicago Campus. He has 20 years of experience as an educator, clinician, therapist, and community leader. His expertise is in child and adolescent neurodevelopmental psychopathology, neuroanatomy, the biological basis of behavior, and more. He is the associate editor of the Journal of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, and in 2016, won the Outstanding Faculty of the Year Award from Community Partnerships, the Distinguished Teaching Award in Public Service Teaching, and the Ted Rubenstein Inspired Teaching Award.

Heather Sheets - Washington, D.C. Campus Dean - The Chicago SchoolHeather D. Sheets, Psy.D., is dean of The Chicago School’s Washington, D.C., Campus. Dr. Sheets, a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialized interest in working with emerging adult issues and alcohol and substance assessment and treatment. After graduating from The Chicago School in 2006, she completed her doctoral internship at the University of Notre Dame. She also did post-doctoral training at Northwestern University’s counseling center, and worked as a substance abuse coordinator at Northwestern University.


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