The rise in anxiety, depression and panic attacks in our students today should give every one of us pause. It is astoundingly high. Anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since the early 2000s after several years of plateau. It is a reality that crosses all demographics, urban, suburban and rural; and among adolescents who are college bound and among those who are not. Teens from different ethnicities and genders are all experiencing the issues associated with angst.
The Department of Health and Human Services reports that in 2015, some three million teens, ages 12-17, had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. More than two million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily functioning. Sadly, the Child Mind Institute informed us that one in five teens or young adults struggle with a mental illness or disorder and two thirds of that group are either undiagnosed or untreated. Most just live with it.
Three Big Reasons
Mental health has become a soaring problem. While some students have biological reasons for anxiety and depression, most do not. Too many of our children are growing up in relatively stable families, but our 21st century culture has given us (without our asking) three huge realities we didn’t see coming. Before we resort to the use of anti-depressants, let’s examine if these may relieve some of the pain of teens and young adults. They are prevalent in almost every state.
1. Sedentary Lifestyles
Every well-read educator and parent knows America’s problem with childhood obesity. What we often fail to consider is that it’s not just a physical problem, it’s a mental and emotional one, too. The human body is wired for movement. Many people only associate exercise with calories, muscles and fat, but there is so much more going on in the body when we move. In fact, there are hundreds of hormones, enzymes, proteins, and chemical reactions happening while the body is physically active. It enables them to be mentally fit and emotionally stable. Consider the correlation below.
When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine and are known to combat depression and anxiety.
Epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine help increase blood flow to muscles for delivery of oxygen and glucose and sharpen mental activity. The Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) hormone interacts with the central nervous system. By tripling BDNF production with exercise, it’s possible to improve moods, boost cognitive function and improve memory. When kids are sedentary, these hormones are unable to do their work. In short, we are made to move—and we naturally struggle when sedentary.
2. Solitary Lifestyles
Yes, today’s students are connected virtually through their portable devices, but they are actually spending more time alone than past generations of youth. Teens are dating less, going to a mall with friends less and interacting in person less. Generation Z has proven to be more private than their Millennial predecessors. Why is this? The portable device has overtaken the personal conversation. Screen to screen has overtaken face to face. At first, half the social scientists I studied believed this “new normal” would not hinder the social development of kids. Today, however, the data on these seems clear:
- Emotional intelligence isn’t developed well on a device.
- Anxiety levels rise with increased interactions on social media.
Psychologist Jean Twenge concludes that the more students spend time in genuine conversations in the presence of people, anxiety levels drop. Research indicates that less than two hours on social media can actually diminish anxiety and depression levels in students. More than two hours causes students to become vulnerable to rising angst and stress levels. Humans are social creatures, who flourish best in face to face connections.
3. Saturated Lifestyles
Teens today consume thousands of messages a day on social media, email, live interactions and other media outlets. Our brains were not meant to digest this much information. Consider this comparison: the average person today consumes as much information reading the Sunday New York Times as a person consumed during an entire year in the 19th century. Further, our children’s lives are full of extracurricular activities today, complete with two practices a week for soccer plus a game, piano lessons and recitals, karate lessons and of course band practice. A one-frame comic put this new normal in perspective. One small girl says to another as they walk off the soccer field: “Wow! You’ve got 15 minutes between soccer practice and violin lessons? What are you going to do with all that free time?”
Our lives are saturated. Kids are overwhelmed. And they are distracted. Once again, our brains are not built to take in all this activity. Dr. Peter Gray, from Boston College says his greatest concern is not merely the volume of activity but the fact that children are not given much “free play time” where they are in control of their time. Far less than past generations. Today’s kid lives a life that’s supervised and prescribed by adults. This lifestyle leaves them unready to make their own decisions and with an “external locus of control.” Too often, it means they assume a posture that believes someone else will take care of them. One of the greatest needs of our kids is margin in their day; for silence and autonomy; for going outside and making up a game with their friends.
Although we are more educated than ever, our lifestyles may be less healthy than past generations. I believe most adults got ambushed by it all. And our kids suffer:
- Sedentary lifestyles leave them overweight.
- Solitary lifestyles leave them over-indulged.
- Saturated lifestyles leave them overwhelmed.
We must get them moving. A good rule of thumb is to match the hours they have in front of a screen with that many hours in physical activity.
We must get them face-to-face with people and off their phones. One good rule is to match the hours they have on a screen with the same hours socializing in-person.
We must offer them free time to play and control their time. One good rule could be to insure they limit social media time to two hours or less daily.
New Habitudes Course:
Social & Emotional Learning
Our Habitudes for Social & Emotional Learning curriculum uses memorable imagery, real-life stories and practical experiences to teach timeless skills in a way that is relevant to students today. Students are constantly using images to communicate via emojis, Instagram, and Snapchat. Why not utilize their favorite language to bridge the gap between learning and real-life application?
Habitudes for Social & Emotional Learning helps middle and high school students:
- Develop habits of self-discipline and initiative
- Implement time management skills to do what really counts
- Plan for personal growth outside the classroom
- Identify their unique strengths and passions for a healthy self-image
- And many more social and emotional skills
Click on the link below today to learn more about Habitudes for Social & Emotional Learning!