Intro: Why am I researching this?
One of the most common mental illnesses that I have both heard about and seen around me is anxiety. In the last decade and possibly longer, rates of mental illness have been increasing. No age group has been more affected than teenagers. Teenagers navigating the stressful, awkward high school phase of their life are most susceptible to anxiety, but we have not been focusing on how to help people with anxiety. Why are more teens being diagnosed with anxiety than ever before? Is this because of an increased awareness, or does it stem from a deeper social issue we should be working to change? And most of all, is this just in the US, or is this a global issue? I am trying to raise more awareness for the #1 most common mental illness globally, as it is also one of the most undiagnosed mental illnesses.
While the US and China have some of the highest rates of teenage anxiety, Finland has one of the lowest. What is accounting for the difference in rates? The US and China foster high stress and competitive environments in schools, while Finland has a more progressive approach focusing on comprehension rather than memorization – not to mention their lack of standardized testing. Other parts of teenage culture, such as social media, could be factors as well. But awareness is rising with the diagnosis rates. Anxiety especially is the type of mental illness that can fly under the radar and undiagnosed for years, so is this newfound awareness a contributor as well? The truth of the matter is that no one knows for sure, but read on to learn more!
In the US
The percent of cases of anxiety in teens is larger than the global average. Why is it so high? And why is it rising? No one is quite sure, but a possible cause is the pressure to financially and professionally succeed that is higher than previous generations. The standardized testing environment coupled with the intense college process puts loads of stress on high school students. And it is not just standardized tests, but the increased cultural value of grades as well. And not to mention the cost of a college education is putting this future generation into debt.
Between school shootings, terrorist attacks, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, real-life threats seem everpresent. Social media also creates an environment where teens constantly see the cultural expectations of beauty, making it hard to not compare oneself to these impossible standards. But none of these factors have been confirmed to be the source of teens’ anxiety. Poverty levels, parental expectations, political divisions? No one has been dedicated to getting to the root of the problem. The awareness surrounding anxiety has risen as well. These rising levels might very well be due to this increased awareness. In fact, Yale Professor Dr. Eli Lebowitz believes that it is likely that “it is the fact that we are more attuned to [anxiety]” rather than social factors that are pushing the numbers higher. Pediatricians now use the Pediatric Symptom Checklist (PSC) to screen youths for mental illnesses, including anxiety. The awareness of teachers and fellow students is higher as well.
The Stress of the Chinese Education System
When it comes to education in China, they are famously known for their extremely rigorous education system. This system, along with family problems and poverty, is seen as the most common cause of anxiety. While it has incredible outcomes, what is the cost to teen student’s mental health? Chinese students regularly outperform students from the rest of the world, but have some of the highest rates of teen anxiety.
The extreme levels of stress students endure have other effects, not just anxiety. Girls especially endure higher stress levels. They typically put more weight behind doing well, and they are trying to combat the deeply rooted history of valuing sons over daughters (as mentioned in the infographic above). Students in general have a hard time asking for help because admitting that one does not understand something is considered a public sham.
The testing is very different than in the US. Most of the standardized tests are more about memorization than critical thinking, and the tests are much harder in order to create a greater difference in scores between the huge population of students. There is a test from middle school to high school that determines one’s high school, which then limits one’s college options. It is a very stressful test that very young students take to basically determine their future.
After high school, though, comes arguably the hardest standardized test in the world: the GaoKao. It is an all-stakes test that students take a full year tediously studying for. A student’s GaoKao score is all a Chinese college looks at during admissions. To American students, it is surprising! You are just a score away from your dream college. But I honestly don’t know how to express to non-Chinese students how hard this test is. Not to mention the emphasis the government and culture as a whole puts on this test – GaoKao students get roadblocks to test sites on test day and some parents even quit their jobs to help their teen study during their senior year. A highschool in Anhui was recently exposed for their 16 hour per day study regimen. Although Chinese colleges are not as academically challenging as American colleges, merely getting into a specific college can land a student a prestigious job, with little emphasis on their grades.
Finland has one of the lowest rates of teen anxiety in the entire world, but what makes Finnish teens so different from American or Chinese teens? For one, overall stress surrounding education is way less. There is only one standardized test students take to graduate high school, and the questions are mostly written answers rather than multiple choice. They get to choose which subjects they take the test for, so they can cater to their strengths.
Students also commonly take a gap year to travel or work before they go to college, where tuition is paid for by the government so many also take advantage of this by taking longer than 4 years to get a degree. The school day lasts longer and is shorter, typically starting around 9:00 am and ending around 2:30. Even with all the reduced stress for teens, Finland is still not immune to the rising rate of mental health. The fastest raising rate has been the rate of teenage girls with depression or anxiety. There has not been much investigation into why, as the government has been trying to resolve the small numbers of mental health professionals.
Finland has had problems with teen substance abuse and smoking in the past. Most of it has improved, but some problems with smoking still remain. There are probably other cultural stressors I have yet to mention, but Finland still remains a place with low levels of anxiety.
A Global View
Of course, it is very important to emphasize that I am researching all of this from the perspective of an American high school student. There is no way that I can fully understand causes of anxiety from different cultures. And these might not be right! No one really knows what is accounting for these rising rates. But there are some things that appear among teens around the world: school pressures, drug abuse, poverty, and even biology in the form of hormones. The varying levels of these factors could be what accounts for each country’s rates of teenage anxiety. It could even be a mix of all or more of these factors. Anxiety disorders are the #1 most common type of mental illness worldwide, and also one of the most undertreated. Most anxiety disorders “start in childhood at a fairly young age, probably half start before someone is age 10,… [and] by 18 is the onset of most anxiety disorders for sure,” even if said person isn’t diagnosed until they are an adult (Lebowitz). Even with the newfound awareness of mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders, anxiety still goes widely undiagnosed. The cause of the rise of teen anxiety diagnoses, whether it is school systems, social media, substance abuse, our new hyper-awareness to the illness, or even the recent COVID-19 pandemic, is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, it is still fascinating to compare rates and potential causes across countries and cultures.
What can we do?
Look for symptoms in teenagers around you and in yourself:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, on-edge
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Consistent worries
Reach out to someone, or help someone reach out to:
- A trusted adult
- School counselor
- A close friend
- Call or text a helpline:
- Anxiety hotline: 1-866-295-5430
- Panic attack helpline: 1-800-64-PANIC
- Suicide prevenetion lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
- Crisis Text Line: 741741
More Healthy Coping Mechanisms:
- Taking deep breaths and focusing on breathing
- Meditation and/mindfulness
- Exercise to release energy
- Establish a sleeping routine of 6-8 hours
- Talk to a doctor
Remember: Getting help is not a show of weakness, but a show of strength. You or someone else should never feel ashamed of your mental health. Let’s get rid of those cultural stigmas and focus on helping people, not judging them.
How do you plan to help?
Write about some of your experiences in the comments below! I would love to hear how this issue has impacted you! Here are some thoughtful questions to get you started:
Do you know someone with anxiety? When was a time when you helped this person out?
Do you have any ideas of how to help that I haven’t mentioned?
How can you help someone you know?
If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, who can you reach out to?
Thank you so much for reading!
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