Anxiety strikes affluent areas

Andreea Sabau and Olga Archakov, News Editor and Editor-at-Large

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Completing piles of assignments, finishing college applications and creating art pieces are senior Marina Staiger’s reality each day as she returns from school. Her overwhelming workload has only worsened the flame of anxiety constantly blazing in her mind about her past, future and family.

“My mom tells me this all the time,” said Staiger. “‘You’re 17. Most of your childhood has been taken away from you. You need to be a kid, and when are you going to be a kid?’ … I always think, ‘You know, my childhood is pretty much up. … What’s going to happen to [my little brother’s] childhood?’”

Kim Penberthy, professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said in a phone interview that everyone experiences stress, a feeling of mental strain following troubling events. However, only some individuals experience anxiety, which is the inability to cope with stressors in a way that does not interfere with everyday life.

According to a three-part in-depth article published by the Chicago Tribune, the number of students receiving help for anxiety disorders at nearby North Shore high schools has increased.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 31.9 percent of adolescents have any anxiety disorder.

Penberthy said she fears the unrealistic expectations set in high-achieving schools have fostered this increase in anxiety.

“There’s this new norm set that’s really not normal, but people act like it is and accept it.

“It’s not healthy for you to stay up until 3 a.m.,” said Penberthy. “It’s not good to put that much pressure on teenagers to achieve and perform. But, you get enough people together who are doing it, and it becomes the norm.”

According to Staiger, who has been diagnosed with anxiety, students in the Glenbrook North community often have to endure social, academic and parental pressures that can be exacerbated by the high-achieving environment.

“You see kids [whose] … parents are CEOs or presidents of a company, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we want you to do better than us,’” said Staiger. “But they’re a CEO. How do you want us to do better than [them]? … My parents have always been great. They have never put that kind of stress on me. They say, ‘If you’re trying, that’s all we can ask from you.’”

School psychologist Monica Mills said she works with students at GBN who have anxiety, and they most frequently report academic stressors as their main cause of anxiety. To alleviate students’ stress over their own scores, which are often above average, she shows them data on the average nationwide ACT and SAT scores.

“Sometimes I refer to the ‘Northbrook bubble’ because, since students here are so bright, I feel like we have this assumption that if you have anything less than honors or APs or straight A’s, colleges won’t even look twice at you.

“Conversations with the right people in school can make you realize how well you’re actually doing and give you a realistic comparison of, ‘Oh, maybe I can make it out in the real world, and I’m really not doing that badly earning B’s in honors classes,’” Mills said.

According to Staiger, there is a stigma around revealing anxiety disorders to others because it is often difficult for people to see past the label of having a mental illness.

“It’s very hard to talk about struggles [with anxiety] without someone else saying, ‘Oh, I have it worse because of this,’” said Staiger. “That kind of immediately turns you down [so that] you can’t talk about anything. So, it becomes a competition. It’s hard to discuss [anxiety] because it puts you in the perspective of weakness.”

Penberthy said she believes changes could be made in schools to help address highly competitive environments that could foster anxiety, such as practicing relaxation techniques in the classroom and increasing education on the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Teenagers with anxiety may experience increased acne, erratic moods and withdrawal from others.

Especially in affluent areas, people might think, ‘Well, there’s no problem here,’” said Penberthy. “‘Everyone’s great.’ I think that it’s even more important to get out information about what are the symptoms of anxiety … and to look for them and screen for them early on. I think so many people have had the symptoms for a long time [because] nobody put it together.”

According to Staiger, it is essential for teenagers who silently struggle with anxiety to push aside their fears and ask for help before they reach the “breaking point.”

“I always thought, ‘Oh, maybe I’m the only person in the whole world who feels like this.’

“You are never alone, no matter how bad you feel,” said Staiger. “So reach out. … Five years down the line, you don’t want to be like, ‘I wish I had told somebody what was going on, because now it’s out of my control.’”

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