A study found that in-office teen anxiety has risen in the last decade but that in-office therapy offerings have not.
Experts say that anxiety continues to rise through the 2020s alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.
Providing helpful and thorough treatment offerings to teens may include a re-focus on therapy options for treatment.
A recent study on adolescent and teen anxiety found that from 2006 to 2018, the number of teens and adolescents diagnosed with anxiety disorders in office-based settings increased, but those office-based therapy offerings did not.
The findings suggest that more teens and adolescents are relying solely on medication-based treatment—or no treatment—for anxiety. The study had some limitations, such as only focusing on in-office visits, and it did not assess whether patients were prescribed therapy at other times. Researchers say that their findings should be followed up on to assess if gaps in care are continuing into the 2020s and, if so, how to address them.
Mental health experts express the importance of therapy and counseling in helping young people work through anxiety and feel less alone.
According to Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT—a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Health Center - The Child and Family Development Center— therapists, social workers, and other “individuals in a role to support and intervene with treatment options…play important parts in helping to support reduction of anxiety symptoms and support prevention of mental health deterioration.”
Mendez adds that a mental health professional’s role is unique, as they should have the “capacity” to thoroughly listen to a patient’s concerns and help them identify and work through distress—something family members may not have been able to do.
Therapists working with teens on managing anxiety should listen to their patient's concerns seriously and with empathy, compassion, and openness, she adds. Because of the stigma that can come along with mental health treatment, it is also important for mental health professionals—therapists or other workers who are making recommendations or referrals—to refrain from conducting conversations in a way that suggests blame, accusation, or judgment, Mendez says.
A pre-pandemic assessment of anxiety
The study did not look at trends in treatment in the 2020s or throughout the pandemic. Instead, the data serves as a reminder that teens have been experiencing multiple forms of mental unrest for some time—not all of which have been driven by the pandemic.
Alex Dimitriu, MD, psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist and Founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, says that, “numerous factors have coincided to contribute to increased teen anxiety”—prior to the pandemic—including the introduction of smartphones and widespread use of social media around 2012.
However, it does appear that anxiety has continued to grow, and that it may be present at a higher rate than during the study period. Looking at the 2020s and pandemic era, Mendez says that teen anxiety is rising, particularly among girls.
“An increase in anxiety and depression symptoms have been researched post-pandemic across all populations, but with greater impact among teenage girls,” says Mendez. “The incidences of increased symptomatology associated with anxiety ha[ve] been linked to life changes that occurred because of pandemic.”
Some of these life changes include school concerns, like worries about passing classes or graduating on time, as well as navigating virtual and hybrid classrooms; social concerns around reduced face-to-face interaction with friends and peers, social media bullying, and political disagreements; and family concerns, like risks of or experiences with death; and societal concerns, including media scrutiny, discrimination, and cultural dissonance, Mendez says.
Among other things, these life changes have had a poignant impact on people’s “sense of safety,” which for many young people was already fragile, says Mendez.
What this means for you
If a teen or adolescent patient expresses signs of anxiety, it can be important to discuss all types of treatment with them, including talk therapy, in order to address potential treatment gaps and best help them manage their condition.