What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is best described as intense feelings that involve excessive amounts of fear, nervousness, worry, or dread. These feelings can be constant or specific to situations such as experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, and can cause a person to feel preoccupied, distracted, tense and always on alert. Anxiety alters how someone processes emotions and can cause physical symptoms. Mild anxiety might be vague and unsettling, while severe anxiety may seriously affect day-to-day living.
Everyone experiences bouts of normal stress and anxiety throughout their lifetime, and telling yourself not to be anxious, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic is like trying to tell water not to be wet. These are anxious times! It’s important to know that the question is not how to become anxiety free right now, but how to best manage the anxiety that is experienced.
Anxiety is the most common group of mental illnesses in the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of people struggling with anxiety has increased from 1 in 10, to as many as 4 in 10. Unfortunately, only 37% of people with an anxiety disorder receive treatment.
While anxiety disorders can develop at any age, there are some differences in symptoms and types in children and adolescents versus adults. Often, young children cannot process their world in the ways that adults can because their cognitive functioning is not fully developed. This affects the way their minds identify and respond to potential threats. This means they often do not realize when their fear reactions become irrational or pervasive; they know only what they are feeling. Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety in youth are restlessness, uncontrollable feelings of worry, increased irritability, concentration difficulties, and sleep issues such as problems in falling or staying asleep. In teens, some of the symptoms can also include substance use, withdrawing from preferred activities and difficulties in school performance.
So, what causes anxiety issues in youth?
Young people and teens today are dealing with so many changes in routine and social activities as the result of the pandemic, as well as facing a world that can be scary and threatening. That added to the enormous pressure and high expectations to succeed can make today’s youth feel extremely overwhelmed. Social media has also played a significant role in the increased feelings of anxiety in youth. Today’s children and teens are constantly connected to social media, so it is not surprising that their self-esteem and worldview becomes connected to responses to social media posts. Whatever the cause, this rise in anxiety is a real problem for our youth. Chronic anxiety can lead to serious mental health problems such as depression, substance use, and even suicide. It can interfere with the ability to focus and learn causing lifelong impacts.
Where can you get help?
Sometimes additional supports may be required. Vermont Care Partners network of Designated Agencies (DA) provide specialized services to children with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
Agency programs provide therapeutic services to children and their families. Services can include individual, group and family counseling in addition to a variety of supports that promote children’s stability in communities, schools, and homes. These supports may include educational groups, Peer to peer support and learning how to navigate and access community resources.
United Counseling Service (UCS) is the DA that serves residents of Bennington County. UCS’ innovative Family Outreach Program, is one of the many programs offered. “The Youth and Family Service team have used their creative minds to engage children and adolescents throughout the pandemic,” says Lorna Mattern, Executive Director of United Counseling Service. As a creative way to engage with her clients, a therapeutic case manager created “Flat Becky”, for example. “Flat Becky” was mailed, along with a letter, to the children she could no longer see in person because of the pandemic.
I miss going on adventures with you. I have been feeling a little sad lately and could use some fun. I have sent you a “Flat Becky” and was hoping you could take me on some adventures with you. If you are willing, please have your parents send me pictures of the adventures you take with Flat Becky. I would love to go on treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, and learn how to build with legos. Riding a bike? Bring me with you but don’t go too fast – and make sure you draw a helmet on me in case we fall…I cannot wait to see your pictures and all the adventures we go on!
“Flat Becky” was a hit! She went on many adventures and the children stayed connected with their service provider.
In times of crisis, children and youth far too often end up in the very places we know they should not be, the Emergency Department. Crisis services often place a burden on hospital staff and resources, particularly now, as medical staff respond to individuals presenting in the ED with Coronavirus like symptoms. When a child’s anxiety or depression become too much to bear, the need for intervention is often immediate and so UCS expanded its Family Emergency Service (crisis response) to include the Psychiatric Urgent Care for Kids (PUCK) program.
PUCK is designed to keep youth experiencing a mental health crisis out of the emergency department and provides a therapeutic environment that serves youth up to the age of 18. PUCK engages children and families in a recovery-oriented, trauma-informed environment that is designed to provide children with the right level of care. “I was amazed at how quickly we were able to access the services and the support my child needed, and I am grateful for the difference its already made in his life”, states a parent who accessed PUCK during a crisis.
“We continue to see an increased need for positive interventions for children and youth as they navigate the on-going pandemic and the isolation it has created. UCS is able to provide the right care in a therapeutic environment,” says Mattern. “We are keeping kids out of the ED, reducing costs to the system and improving outcomes for kids and families.” The program opened in 2019 and has seen significant increases in utilization while creating decreases in ED utilization.
What can you do to help?
When you worry that a young person is struggling with anxiety, it’s important to know what you can do to help.
- First, Be aware of the signs of anxiety. Sometimes children may say that they are anxious, but other times it is less clear – especially as they may not even realize it themselves. In addition to the signs and symptoms already mentioned, chronic physical complaints, such as fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches can also be a warning sign that anxiety is occurring.
- Next, be sure to talk with kids about potential stressors. Try to see the world the way they do and help them to keep perspective and find ways to cope.
- Another great tool is to be mindful of the expectations you set for children and teens. High expectations can help children reach their potential, but they need to be realistic ones. Not only that, remember that kids need time to relax, play, and be with friends—all of which are crucial for their mental and physical health.
- Another important aspect is to talk with kids about their social media use. Help them take breaks and to think critically and rationally about the effect of social media on their lives.
- You may consider attending a virtual Youth Mental Health First Aid training, which helps recognize signs and symptoms of a mental health crisis and provides the listener with information on how to respond.
Follow the link for more information: insert VCP Youth and Adult Mental Health First Aid
As part of the United Counseling Service’s community education series, UCS Presents: Our Kids Are More Stressed than Ever; What Can We Do? aired in August and was attended by area parents and teachers.
United Counseling Service (UCS) is a private, non-profit community mental health center that has played an essential part of Bennington County’s integrated healthcare system since 1958.
Local mental health centers have resources for children’s mental health. The Vermont Care Partners website can help you locate the agency closest to you: www.vermontcarepartner.org
This article is part of a series being produced in collaboration by members of the Vermont Care Partners.
Vermont Care Partners is a statewide network of sixteen non-profit, community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability support.