Why more US teens are suffering from severe anxiety than ever before — and how parents can help

Nearly one-third of American adolescents and adults are affected by anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s the most common mental health disorder in the country.

» RELATED: What is anxiety and how can you overcome it?

And when it comes to teens, severe anxiety is becoming more crippling each year.

In fact, over the last decade, anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services, the New York Times reported.

» RELATED: Anxiety and depression do not define who we are

The data comes from the American College Health Association’s 2016 survey of students about the previous year.

Sixty-two percent of undergraduate students in the survey reported “overwhelming anxiety,” a significant increase from 50 percent in 2011.

A separate survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, asks incoming college freshmen whether they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year.

>> Read more trending news

In 1985, when the institute began surveying students on the issue, 18 percent said they felt overwhelmed.

By 2010, 29 percent said they did. And in 2016, the number jumped to 41 percent.

And since 2012, the Washington Post reported, the Boys Town National Hotline has seen a 12 percent spike in teens reaching out via calls, texts, chats and emails about their struggles with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

» RELATED: Teens and the distorted reality of social media

The rate of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers has also doubled over the past decade.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mirrored a national trend in suicide rates across the board.

» RELATED: The suicide rate for teen girls is the highest it’s been in 40 years — Is social media to blame?

But the research found suicide rates among 15- to 19-year-old girls doubled between 2007 and 2015, reaching a 40-year high.

That means for every 100,000 American girls in 2015, five committed suicide.

For teen boys, the rate rose by more than 30 percent.

» RELATED: ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ shows how adults can mess up teen angst

What’s causing the rise in teenagers with severe anxiety?

Anxiety, along with depression, cuts across all demographics, including both privileged and disadvantaged teenagers.

But privileged teens are among the most emotionally distressed youth in America, Arizona State University psychology professor Suniya Luthar told the New York Times.

» RELATED: How to keep your kids safe on social media 

“These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she said, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting ... 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.”

But helicopter parents aren’t always to blame. Many students internalize the anxiety and put the pressure on themselves, Madeline Levine, co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit aimed at improving student well-being, told the Times.

» RELATED: The more social media you use, the lonelier you feel, study says

Another expert, psychiatrist Stephanie Eken, said despite the cultural differences, there’s a lot of overlap among teens regarding what makes them anxious.

Eken mentions factors range from school, family conflicts, what food to eat, diseases, how they’re perceived by friends and notably in the last few years, Eken told the Times, to a rising fear about terrorism. 

“They wonder about whether it’s safe to go to a movie theater,” she said.

A lack of close, meaningful relationships is also a major factor.

» RELATED: Should kids be watching new Netflix series on teen suicide? 

Experts have long said hormonal, mental and physical changes associated with puberty may leave teens especially vulnerable to anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.

And social media doesn’t help, Eken said, adding that teens are always comparing themselves with their peers, which leaves them miserable.

When Times reporter Benoit Denizet-Lewis visited Mountain Valley, a nonprofit that offers teens need-based assistance for $910 a day, a college student at the facility said, “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.”

» RELATED: This social media platform is the worst for cyberbullying 

But social media can also be used to “help increase connections between people,” CDC suicide expert Thomas Simon told CNN in August. “It's an opportunity to correct myths about suicide and to allow people to access prevention resources and materials.”

Still, Simon acknowledged that cyberbullying can greatly impact vulnerable youth.

More from experts at NYTimes.com.

How parents can help

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 80 percent of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not getting treatment. And anxiety disorders are highly treatable.

While anxiety can be a normal reaction to stressful environments and situations, there are specific symptoms associated with anxiety disorders.

Generally, someone with anxiety disorder would have fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the situation or inappropriate for his or her age.

The anxiety would also affect normal day-to-day function.

Two questions parents should ask themselves: Is my child more shy or anxious than others his or her age? Is my child more worried than other children his or her age?

» RELATED: Nighttime cellphone usage linked to poor mental health among teens

According to Lynn Miller, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, those questions can help predict a child’s potential of developing an anxiety disorder.

If you notice overwhelming feelings of anxiety in your child, the ADAA suggests seeking help and talking to a professional.

While antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can offer relief from symptoms, they’re not treated as cures. Instead, talk therapy is often recommended.

More tips from ADAA.org.

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