The disintegration of Jake’s life took him by surprise. It happened early in his junior year of high school, while he was taking three Advanced Placement classes, running on his school’s cross-country team and traveling to Model United Nations conferences. It was a lot to handle, but Jake — the likable, hard-working oldest sibling in a suburban North Carolina family — was the kind of teenager who handled things. Though he was not prone to boastfulness, the fact was he had never really failed at anything.
Not coincidentally, failure was one of Jake’s biggest fears. He worried about it privately; maybe he couldn’t keep up with his peers, maybe he wouldn’t succeed in life. The relentless drive to avoid such a fate seemed to come from deep inside him. He considered it a strength.
Jake’s parents knew he could be high-strung; in middle school, they sent him to a therapist when he was too scared to sleep in his own room. But nothing prepared them for the day two years ago when Jake, then 17, seemingly “ran 150 miles per hour into a brick wall,” his mother said. He refused to go to school and curled up in the fetal position on the floor. “I just can’t take it!” he screamed. “You just don’t understand!”
Jake was right — his parents didn’t understand. Jake didn’t really understand, either. But he also wasn’t good at verbalizing what he thought he knew: that going to school suddenly felt impossible, that people were undoubtedly judging him, that nothing he did felt good enough. “All of a sudden I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I was so afraid.” His tall, lanky frame succumbed, too. His stomach hurt. He had migraines. “You know how a normal person might have their stomach lurch if they walk into a classroom and there’s a pop quiz?” he told me. “Well, I basically started having that feeling all the time.”
Alarmed, Jake’s parents sent him to his primary-care physician, who prescribed Prozac, an antidepressant often given to anxious teenagers. It was the first of many medications that Jake, who asked that his last name not be used, would try over the next year. But none seemed to work — and some made a bad situation worse. An increase in dosage made Jake “much more excited, acting strangely and almost manic,” his father wrote in a journal in the fall of 2015. A few weeks later, Jake locked himself in a bathroom at home and tried to drown himself in the bathtub.
He was hospitalized for four days, but soon after he returned home, he started hiding out in his room again. He cried, slept, argued with his parents about going to school and mindlessly surfed the internet on his phone. The more school he missed, the more anxious he felt about missing school. And the more anxious he felt, the more hopeless and depressed he became. He had long wanted to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but now that felt like wishful thinking.
Not every day was bad. During spring break in 2016, Jake’s father wrote: “Jake was relaxed and his old sarcastic, personable, witty self.” A week later, though, Jake couldn’t get through a school day without texting his mother to pick him up or hiding out in the nurse’s office. At home, Jake threatened suicide again. His younger siblings were terrified. “It was the depth of hell,” his mother told me.
That summer, after two more hospitalizations, Jake’s desperate parents sent him to Mountain Valley in New Hampshire, a residential treatment facility and one of a growing number of programs for acutely anxious teenagers. Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.
Those numbers — combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall — come as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students. While it’s difficult to tease apart how much of the apparent spike in anxiety is related to an increase in awareness and diagnosis of the disorder, many of those who work with young people suspect that what they’re seeing can’t easily be explained away. “We’ve always had kids who didn’t want to come in the door or who were worried about things,” says Laurie Farkas, who was until recently director of student services for the Northampton public schools in Massachusetts. “But there’s just been a steady increase of severely anxious students.”
For the teenagers who arrive at Mountain Valley, a nonprofit program that costs $910 a day and offers some need-based assistance, the center is usually a last resort after conventional therapy and medications fail. The young people I met there suffered from a range of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety, separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Though OCD and PTSD are considered anxiety disorders at Mountain Valley and other treatment centers, they were moved into separate categories in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)
ountain Valley teenagers spend a lot of time analyzing — and learning to talk back to — their anxious thoughts. During one group session in the summer of 2016 in a sunlit renovated barn with couches, a therapist named Sharon McCallie-Steller instructed everyone to write down three negative beliefs about themselves. That’s an easy exercise for anxious young people (“Only three?” one girl quipped), but McCallie-Steller complicated the assignment by requiring the teenagers to come up with a “strong and powerful response” to each negative thought.
She asked for volunteers. First, residents would share their negative beliefs and rebuttals with the group. Then others would act those out, culminating in a kind of public performance of private teenage insecurity.
Jake raised his hand. By then, he was in his third month at Mountain Valley, and he looked considerably less anxious than several of the newcomers, including one who sat slumped on a couch with his head in his hands. “I’m free to play the part of terrible, evil thoughts for anyone who needs them,” Jake said with a smile. He had already spent weeks challenging his own thinking, which often persuaded him that if he failed a single quiz at school, “then I’ll get a bad grade in the class, I won’t get into the college I want, I won’t get a good job and I’ll be a total failure.”
At Mountain Valley, Jake learned mindfulness techniques, took part in art therapy and equine therapy and, most important, engaged in exposure therapy, a treatment that incrementally exposes people to what they fear. The therapists had quickly figured out that Jake was afraid of failure above all else, so they devised a number of exercises to help him learn to tolerate distress and imperfection. On a group outing to nearby Dartmouth College, for example, Jake’s therapist suggested he strike up conversations with strangers and tell them he didn’t have the grades to get into the school. The college application process was a source of particular anxiety for Jake, and the hope was that he would learn that he could talk about college without shutting down — and that his value as a person didn’t depend on where he went to school.
Though two months in rural New Hampshire hadn’t cured Jake of anxiety, he had made significant progress, and the therapy team was optimistic about his return home for his senior year. Until then, Jake wanted to help other Mountain Valley teenagers face their fears.
Among them was Jillian, a 16-year-old who, when she wasn’t overwhelmed with anxiety, came across as remarkably poised and adultlike, the kind of teenager you find yourself talking to as if she were a graduate student in psychology. Jillian, who also asked that her last name not be used, came to Mountain Valley after two years of only intermittently going to school. She suffered from social anxiety (made worse by cyberbullying from classmates) and emetophobia, a fear of vomit that can be so debilitating that people will sometimes restrict what they eat and refuse to leave the house, lest they encounter someone with a stomach flu.
Jillian listened as Jake and other peers — who, in reality, liked her very much — voiced her insecurities: “I can’t believe how insignificant Jillian is.” “I mean, for the first three weeks, I thought her name was Susan.” “If she left tomorrow, maybe we wouldn’t even miss her.”
At the last one, Jillian’s shoulders caved, and her eyes watered. “I don’t want to do this,” she said, looking meekly at McCallie-Steller.
“If it’s too much, you can stop,” the therapist said, but Jillian considered the offer only long enough to reject it. She straightened her back. “No, I feel like I need to do this,” she announced. “I have a week and a half left. If I can’t get through something like this here …”
Her voice trailed off, but the implication was clear: The real world would be much more anxiety producing — and much less forgiving.
Anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But unlike depression, with which it routinely occurs, anxiety is often seen as a less serious problem.
“Anxiety is easy to dismiss or overlook, partially because everyone has it to some degree,” explained Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University in Philadelphia. It has an evolutionary purpose, after all; it helps us detect and avoid potentially dangerous situations. Highly anxious people, though, have an overactive fight-or-flight response that perceives threats where there often are none.
But sometimes there are good reasons to feel anxious. For many young people, particularly those raised in abusive families or who live in neighborhoods besieged by poverty or violence, anxiety is a rational reaction to unstable, dangerous circumstances. At the Youth Anxiety Center’s clinic in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, which serves mostly poor and working-class Hispanic youth, teenagers would object to the definition of anxiety I heard often at Mountain Valley: “The overestimation of danger and the underestimation of our ability to cope.”
“The fears can be very real for our kids,” explained Carolina Zerrate, the clinic’s medical director. “Oftentimes their neighborhoods are not safe, their streets are not safe and their families can feel unsafe if there’s a history of trauma and abuse.” The contemporary political climate can also feel “incredibly unsafe for the community of kids we serve,” Zerrate adds, explaining that many have undocumented family members.
And yet addressing anxiety is low on the priority list in many economically disadvantaged communities. Kids who “act out” are often labeled defiant or aggressive, while those who keep to themselves — anxiety specialists call them “silent sufferers” — are overlooked or mistaken for being shy. “If you go to a public school in a struggling urban area, teachers will talk about drugs, crime, teen pregnancy, violence,” Kendall says. “When you start to talk about anxiety, they’re like, ‘Oh, those are the kids we like!’ ”
Teenagers raised in more affluent communities might seemingly have less to feel anxious about. But Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. “These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she says, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.”
For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,’ ” Luthar says. “There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”
It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure (and therapists who work with teenagers sometimes do), but several anxiety experts pointed to an important shift in the last few years. “Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”
Though there are cultural differences in how this kind of anguish manifests, there’s considerable overlap among teenagers from different backgrounds. Many are anxious about school and how friends or teachers perceive them. Some obsess about family conflicts. Teenagers with OCD tend to worry excessively about what foods they should eat, diseases they might contract or whatever happens to be in the news that week. Stephanie Eken, a psychiatrist and the regional medical director for Rogers Behavioral Health, which runs several teenage-anxiety outpatient programs across the country and an inpatient program in Wisconsin, told me that in the last few years she has heard more kids than ever worry about terrorism. “They wonder about whether it’s safe to go to a movie theater,” she said.
When I asked Eken about other common sources of worry among highly anxious kids, she didn’t hesitate: social media. Anxious teenagers from all backgrounds are relentlessly comparing themselves with their peers, she said, and the results are almost uniformly distressing.
Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits — round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers — were partly to blame for their children’s struggles. To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree. At Mountain Valley, I listened as a college student went on a philosophical rant about his generation’s relationship to social media. “I don’t think we realize how much it’s affecting our moods and personalities,” he said. “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”
A resident meditating during a yoga session at Mountain Valley.
In his case, he had little doubt that social media made him more self-conscious. “In high school, I’d constantly be judging my self-worth online,” he told me, recalling his tortured relationship with Facebook. “I would think, Oh, people don’t want to see me on their timeline.”
While smartphones can provoke anxiety, they can also serve as a handy avoidance strategy. At the height of his struggles, Jake spent hours at a time on his phone at home or at school. “It was a way for me not to think about classes and college, not to have to talk to people,” he said. Jake’s parents became so alarmed that they spoke to his psychiatrist about it and took his phone away a few hours each night.
At a workshop for parents last fall at the NW Anxiety Institute in Portland, Ore., Kevin Ashworth, the clinical director, warned them of the “illusion of control and certainty” that smartphones offer anxious young people desperate to manage their environments. “Teens will go places if they feel like they know everything that will happen, if they know everyone who will be there, if they can see who’s checked in online,” Ashworth told the parents. “But life doesn’t always come with that kind of certainty, and they’re never practicing the skill of rolling with the punches, of walking into an unknown or awkward social situation and learning that they can survive it.”
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who researches adolescent mental health and psychological differences among generations, used to be skeptical of those who sounded an alarm about teenage internet use. “It seemed like too easy an explanation for negative mental-health outcomes in teens, and there wasn’t much evidence for it,” she told me. She searched for other possible explanations, including economic ones. But the timing of the spike in anxious and depressed teenagers since 2011, which she called one of the sharpest and most significant she has seen, is “all wrong,” she said. “The economy was improving by the time the increase started.”
The more she looked for explanations, the more she kept returning to two seemingly unrelated trend lines — depression in teenagers and smartphone adoption. (There is significantly more data about depression than anxiety.) Since 2011, the trend lines increased at essentially the same rate. In her recent book “iGen,” and in an article in The Atlantic, Twenge highlights a number of studies exploring the connection between social media and unhappiness. “The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues,” she told me. “It’s enough for an arrest — and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.”
Last fall, at a high school near the New Hampshire-Vermont border, I watched Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and author, deliver bad news to a packed auditorium of teachers and counselors. “We’re not getting the job done,” she said, pacing the stage at Fall Mountain Regional High School, where she had been asked to lead a professional-development training session about anxiety.
More than a decade ago, the school would have been unlikely to invite her to speak. Anxiety was barely on the radar of most educators back then, according to Denise Pope, another founder of Challenge Success, the Stanford-affiliated nonprofit. Pope remembers facing skepticism when she sounded the alarm about growing anxiety among teenagers. “We don’t have to convince them anymore,” she told me. “Schools are coming to us, eager for help.”
A gregarious speaker, Lyons kept her audience entertained by calling anxiety “the cult leader” — for its ability to convince people of falsehoods about themselves — and telling funny stories about overinvolved parents. But her main point was clear: In a seemingly well-meaning effort to help kids avoid what makes them anxious, administrators actually make anxiety worse. “Anxiety is all about the avoidance of uncertainty and discomfort,” Lyons explained. “When we play along, we don’t help kids learn to cope or problem-solve in the face of unexpected events.”