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What Does Teenage Anxiety Look Like Around The World and Why?

An awkward intro video to get you started!

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. 

 

In China

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.

 

In Finland

     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
  • Hyperactivity
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Fatigue 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Irritability
  • 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! 
Works Cited and Consulted
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COMMENTS: 12
  1. April 24, 2020 by Macy

    Hi Malia, there is a ton of great information in this project. I liked you introduction video because you covered everything that you were going to be talking about. Great job!

  2. April 24, 2020 by Lola

    Hi Malia, thank you for addressing this issue! I sometimes think I am the only one stressed in school but projects like yours have helped me realize that the whole world stress just as much as me or more! Also I liked how you added different areas and the amount of stress there.

    • April 25, 2020 by Malia

      Hey Lola, thank you so much! I’m glad that this project has helped you gain a better perspective of yourself in the context of people all over the world! 🙂

  3. April 25, 2020 by Amber

    Hi Malia, I love this presentation! The topic is incredibly relevant, especially as someone who has just gone through the standardized testing process/ college admissions process (famously high anxiety inducing times for teens). I think it’s interesting how you analyzed anxiety in teens across the world and how one’s environment play a role in their mental health. I think it’s important to make structural changes in the education system to help teens have less anxiety.

  4. April 25, 2020 by Amber

    Hi Malia, I love this presentation!! The topic is incredibly relevant, especially as someone who has just gone through the standardized testing process/ college admissions process (famously high anxiety inducing times for teens). I think it’s interesting how you analyzed anxiety in teens across the world and how one’s environment play a role in their mental health. I think it’s important to make structural changes in the education system to help teens have less anxiety.

  5. April 25, 2020 by Alona

    Hello Malia, this presentation was so interesting. I love how you compared three different countries and talked about them individually. It was shocking to see the statistics of the number of teenagers with anxiety. I personally think that trying to be positive is a good coping mechanism. I believe that thinking of a way to improve from an upsetting situation (I know this can be tough) is beneficial to improving your mental health.
    Thanks for this informative presentation! Great job!

    • April 26, 2020 by Malia

      Hey Alona,
      Learning to stay positive and being optimistic is a great idea, thank you! And I am glad that you enjoyed my project! 🙂

  6. April 25, 2020 by Take

    Hi Malia, I really enjoyed reading this presentation and I feel like I really learned a lot from it. I am really interested in learning more about the anxiety that occurs among Chinese students. I personally do not know anyone who has anxiety. However, I do not doubt that there are kids in my community that do. I am aware that it is a problem which many kids struggle with internally and on their own. I think it is important for society to be more accepting of issues like this and making it feel comfortable speaking out about it. Thank you for sharing!

    • April 27, 2020 by Malia

      Hey Take,
      It’s good to acknowledge that anxiety does fly under the radar. In fact, a lot of the people who get diagnosed with anxiety in their early adulthood have had anxiety since around 10 years old, and most people who develop anxiety have had it since they were a child, whether it was diagnosed that early or not. And I also think that anxiety in Chinese students is also very interesting! Here is a link to the main source that I used and to more information on the GaoKao test if you are interested:
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6210330/
      http://www.thatsmags.com/china/post/13965/explainer-gaokao

  7. April 26, 2020 by Megan

    Malia!!! I love your presentation and have learned so much from it. My favorite, and in my opinion, the most unique part of your project is the comparison of United States/China with Finland. The specific section of Finland is so interesting to me, and how their school experience is different. The idea of the government paying for college tuition is a very hot topic in the US right now, and I feel like there could be a whole other project about how that affects mental health. I am also taking Abnormal Psych, and from all our coursework about how multiple influences affecting mental health, I’m sure there are many other aspects of Finish life that play a role in lower anxiety rates. Great work!

    • April 27, 2020 by Malia

      Hey Megan, thank you! I agree that Finland’s education system is so interesting because it is so progressive. It seems strange to live in a society that doesn’t have an intense education system and that values the mental health and wellbeing of its citizens, but it is likely one of the reasons why Finland has some of the lowest rates of mental illness overall.

  8. April 26, 2020 by Sierra Martin

    Hey Malia! Great work. It’s so interesting to see how treatment of anxiety– as well as anxiety in general– can differ so wildly from place to place. It’s crazy to see how so much of teenage anxiety (or lack thereof) seems to be directly correlated with college and university preparation; the students in China were much less anxious than those in Finland, and a big difference between them was the amount of pressure associated with getting into/succeeding at college. It’s just one stressor in our lives, and yet it can still have such a big impact on us. Congrats on a great presentation!

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