Ki Sung: And I’m Ki Sung.
Katrina Schwartz: This is the start of a brand new season for us and this time we took our cues from you all, our audience. We asked you what you care about most in your kids’ schools, and we saw a lot of overlap between parents and teachers. Everyone is worried that school today doesn’t promote a love of learning.
Ki Sung: So, this season we’re exploring a variety of ways to bring joy back to learning, and teaching.
And I’ve been looking forward to this first episode, Katrina, because you’re going to be focusing on a topic we hear about all the time. Parents and teachers are genuinely confused about why their kids are having such a crisis of anxiety.
Jami Sherwood: I wake up everyday and think about what my daughter goes through and how I can best help her. It’s followed by a sadness, and a hope that eventually it will all just come together.
Katrina Schwartz: That was Jami Sherwood, a mom and a fan of MindShift. Her kids have struggled deeply with anxiety. And she’s definitely not alone. We’re starting to see real numbers behind the anxiety issues teachers and parents report anecdotally. The National Institute of Health estimates that more than a third of teens have been or will be affected by serious anxiety in their lifetimes. And more recently, numbers on depression, lack of sleep, and loneliness have also spiked.
Ki Sung: So what’s going on with that? Do we know why mental health is such a problem right now?
Katrina Schwartz: Well, it’s hard to say. Adults love to blame it on social media, and that could be part of it. But it’s really hard to know because triggers are different for every kid. One thing we do know, anxiety is more debilitating than just plain ‘ole stress. It’s a condition that can get in the way of relationships and stuff like work and school.
Ki Sung: Interesting.
Katrina Schwartz: I wanted to know what this type of anxiety actually feels like. How do kids get through the day with it? And when they’re in crisis, what do schools do?
Brianna: Everything kind of started with the anxiety and depression after the passing of my grandfather. And like, he was kinda like, my safe space. And losing that was really big.
Katrina Schwartz: I met Brianna Sedillo through her journalism class at El Cerrito High School -- about 20 minutes outside of San Francisco. She pitched my radio station, KQED, a story about anxiety. So, I asked if she wanted to collaborate. She’s a senior, with beautiful green eyes that glitter when she talks about her grandfather. Two years ago she never would have imagined talking to a stranger about something so personal, but she’s been seeing a school counselor and told me she’s trying to be more open with people.
Brianna: I wake up in the morning and I don't feel anything.
Katrina Schwartz: She’s 18 years old, and she’s grappled with anxiety and depression since middle school, but she didn’t know what to call it then. I asked her to describe how it felt at the time, in her body, as if it were happening today.
Brianna: I'm not hungry. I'm not excited. I'm not happy. I'm not sad. I'm just I'm numb. I go to school and put on a smile for people. Pretend that I care.
Katrina Schwartz: She lost a lot of weight and withdrew from her family. She was surprised that no one seemed to notice. Or if they did, they let it go when she said she was just tired. Brianna lives with her mom, grandma, great-grandmother and little brother. There are a lot of people in her house, but only her little brother seemed to notice her sadness. And Brianna wanted to protect him from it.
She says she thought about suicide.
Brianna: I didn't see myself living past my sophomore year or walking across stage for graduation. So I kind of just I was like I'm not going to make it that far. Some might as well not even try.
Katrina Schwartz: By that time the depression had gotten so bad Brianna hardly recognized herself. Middle school had been rough socially, but she’d always kept her grades up, making the honor roll three times. Halfway through high school she was barely passing.
Brianna: It wasn't who I was. And I knew it. I didn't have the energy to fix it.
Katrina Schwartz: But even though Brianna couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm for life, she was simultaneously hyper aware of what people thought about her. This is super common, by the way, depression and anxiety often go together. Brianna was anxious about how she looked and behaved at school. But her anxiety was at its worst when she thought about how her sliding grades disappointed her mom.
Brianna: I wake up in the morning. I'm thinking what am I going to wear? What am I going to wear? What am I going to wear? People are going to see me in this, what am I going to wear? I eat some type of like, piece of toast, waffle. Get in the car, and again I'm checking myself in the mirror every ten minutes, just to make sure that I look decent enough to be around people. I get to school, go through my classes. I don't answer questions that I know because people will stare, and I don't like when people stare. And then I get home, and it's like there’s just something that goes off, and the anxiety kind of kicks in. Everything that I did that day, the way I pronounce something, the way I did something, the way I walked.
Katrina Schwartz: Brianna somehow managed to keep all those feelings under control until she got home, where she felt safe. But then everything she’d been bottling up all day came spilling out.
Brianna: And then I started thinking about my mom. My mom needs, like she needs better. And I should be doing this, and I’m not doing it. And then I start to panic. And then it's like, what am I going to do, like I'm going to disappoint my mom. And then I can't breathe, and then I get shaky. And I end up, like I'm in a ball on the floor, just trying to get my breathing back on track.
Katrina Schwartz: It made me ache to think of Brianna, feeling so fragile, fighting to hold herself together so no one would see her pain. So no one would be burdened by her emotions. Four generations living in her house, but she was good at hiding.
And she would have kept on like that, except something really scary happened. There was a shooting right outside Brianna’s house.
Brianna: It was like in my front yard. Yeah, it was horrible.
Katrina Schwartz: She was terrified, but looking back she thinks there was a hidden silver lining.
Brianna: In that moment, I was so scared. And I realized that I wanted to be alive.
Katrina Schwartz: The next day, Brianna went to school as usual. Her first class was biology with Ms. Burks. She doesn’t remember what they were studying that day because for the first time, Brianna cracked at school.
Brianna: I ended up having a panic attack. The teacher in that class brought me here. And that's how I got help.
Katrina Schwartz: The teacher brought her to the James Morehouse Project, the school’s wellness center.
Brianna: I wasn't looking for any help. I wasn't even sure that I'd come back.
Katrina Schwartz: Brianna is lucky her school has a place like the James Morehouse project. It’s named after a now retired staff member who prioritized deep relationships with kids.
Katrina Schwartz: So then when you had the panic attack in class, and your teacher brought you here, had you like, known about the center, or ever thought of coming here before?
Brianna: Oh yeah, I knew about it. But I had never, like, wanted the help. So I didn't come.
Katrina Schwartz: In California, the average school has one counselor for 700 students. But the James Morehouse Project offers almost a third of the student population some type of counseling each year. That’s because it runs a large internship program for social workers. All these extra adults make a big difference.
Brianna: I'm very grateful for that moment, I guess. I mean it was horrible, but then like, that's also the moment that saved my life.
Katrina Schwartz: Kids at El Cerrito High are dealing with a lot. There’s trauma and stress from growing up in poor and violent neighborhoods. Fear about what’s happening in the immigration system. And all the normal family stuff and social drama all kids deal with.
But more recently, James Morehouse Project counselors are seeing students dealing with a lot of anxiety. They’ve even come up with a new program to keep up with it.
Katrina Schwartz: Can I get a visitor pass? I’m going to visit the James Morehouse Center
Katrina Schwartz: It’s mid-morning on a Thursday at El Cerrito High.
Katrina Schwartz: Um, I’ll just follow you.
Katrina Schwartz: It’s the time when the James Morehouse Project anxiety group meets in the “annex,” a small room with a table and whiteboard. The walls are covered with inspirational quotes and brainstorms left over from other groups. There are some snacks for munching, popcorn and water.
Rachel Krow-Boniske: So now we’re going to move off of some of the writing we did last week.
Katrina Schwartz: Students are allowed out of class for groups like these, but not too often. They’re scattered around a worn table. Some nervously toy with the papers in front of them. Others stare straight down when they’re asked to talk.
Rachel Krow-Boniske: Today we’re moving more into coping skills and responses to anxiety.
Katrina Schwartz: One student, Dani, reads what they wrote about recognizing their anxiety.
Dani: I feel fight or flight instincts, shaky hands, or a tight chest. I can tell it’s coming by the way it sounds like a ticking clock and feels like suffocation.
Katrina Schwartz: The two social work interns who run this group, Rachel Krow-Boniske and Forest Novak, are teaching students to recognize the signs of anxiety and send them back to class with skills to cope.
Dani: It uses words like failure, disappointment and not enough.
Katrina Schwartz: The social workers started this group because they noticed many students felt alone in their anxiety.
Nina Kaiser: It’s isolating to be anxious.
Katrina Schwartz: Nina Kaiser, an independent therapist who works with a lot of anxious kids, says it’s common for kids to feel they’re the only ones struggling.
Nina Kaiser: Here we know that roughly 30-percent of teenagers are having a really significant experience with anxiety, right, so people who are struggling are not alone in that, but often it can really feel that way.
Katrina Schwartz: But I’ve got good news for you. She says psychologists have a pretty good idea of how to treat anxiety. That’s why she likes working with anxious kids.
Nina Kaiser: You can see huge changes in functioning that are really rewarding as a professional.
Katrina Schwartz: So we’re going to break it down for you. Anxiety affects how your body feels, as well as your thoughts. Therapy can be very effective at treating both your thinking patterns and the reactions they produce.
Nina Kaiser: Your brain is constantly scanning your environment looking for danger. It’s true for all of us, every single one of us, but for when you are experiencing anxiety, it’s like a smoke detector or alarm that goes off more frequently.
Katrina Schwartz: And when your brain senses danger it triggers the fight or flight response.
Nina Kaiser: All of us have smoke detectors at home, right. Sometimes they go off and there's a fire. Sometimes they go off when you're cooking hamburgers, right. And so if you're having anxiety, it's like that part of your brain is, you're getting a lot of false alarms.
Katrina Schwartz: In the El Cerrito anxiety group, the social workers want students to recognize when they’re getting a false alarm, so they can tell themselves a different story. Here’s Dani again, this time sharing how they can view their anxiety differently.
Dani: When anxiety uses words like “not enough” and “they hate you” I replace those words with “helpful,” and remind myself that I’m worthwhile and productive. Even though anxiety tells me that I’m useless and lazy, I know that I’m really focused and artistic.
Katrina Schwartz: I hear some common themes from the anxiety group students: overthinking, negative thoughts, fear of judgment, difficulty getting through simple tasks.
Rachel Krow-Boniske: What do you wish you parents or teachers knew about anxiety and what do you want them to know about supporting you when you feel anxious?
Student #1: Even if you’re like doing the bare minimum in class, and you’re like barely passing, a lot of people with anxiety are still working really hard. Just doing one little assignment can be really hard.
Student #2: It’s not something you can really grow out of. It’s always going to be there.
Dani: Pronouns. It would be nice if they asked because I’m always too scared to go up to the teacher and talk to them about it or say it out loud in class.
Katrina Schwartz: El Cerrito High School is not typical. Often kids don’t get this much help. Adults in schools, teachers and administrators, are just as overwhelmed and burned out as the kids. They don’t have time, or brain space, to figure out the individual needs of the hundreds of kids that pass through their classrooms each day.
It would be easy to miss a kid like Josh Rosario, who is quietly trying to solve his problems on his own.
Josh: I was feeling mad at myself. I was feeling sad about myself. I was questioning things. I was talking to myself. I was almost out of my mind.
Katrina Schwartz: We’ll hear from Josh, whose mom underestimated the amount of trouble he was in. I spent time with him two days after a panic attack. Stay with us.
Katrina Schwartz: I had planned to meet Josh Rosario at school to talk about his anxiety, but on the day of our interview he changed the location to his house. He’d stayed home from school that day because of a big panic attack just two days before.
The panic attack was still very present in Josh’s mind. But I didn’t quite realize that’s why he seemed so anxious as he showed me around his clean, two story duplex.
Josh: Upstairs is my room and my parents room.
Katrina Schwartz: Josh started off as a bit of a puzzle to me. When I met him in the El Cerrito High anxiety group, he was shy and had trouble expressing himself. He was the last person I thought would want to be part of this story. I also didn’t peg him as a fan of the rapper Eminem.
Josh: I bought a poster. I’m a huge fan.
Katrina Schwartz: What do you like so much about him?
Josh: I understand him, in a way. To where, I connect to him really well. I can understand his issues and the stuff he goes through a lot. And it really gives me this deep connection towards his music.
Katrina Schwartz: Josh’s connection to Eminem runs deep. The rapper even has an album called Recovery. Even now, standing in his bedroom, I can tell Josh is anxious. He looks uncomfortable and he’s got his hands jammed down in his pockets. He’s anxious a lot, but he also really wants to understand why he feels this way. He keeps talking about a big, scary, panic attack just two days before. It all started, as it frequently does, with his schoolwork.
Josh: It was around 4 o’clock in the evening. I planned to do my homework. But I don’t do much of it. I’m on my phone looking through social media and such.
Katrina Schwartz: And every minute he messes around adds to his building anxiety, paralyzing him.
Josh: I know breathing helps a lot, so I'm trying to calm and breathe.
Katrina Schwartz: Josh is angry at himself. It’s not that he has too much homework. It’s that he just can’t make himself do it. And the harder he tries, the more worked up he gets.
Josh: I’m trying to relax and finish one simple thing on my homework. One simple thing. I could not write one sentence. It’s that hard to even focus and write one sentence.
Katrina Schwartz: An hour passes. The anxiety is growing.
Josh: It was everything flooding in, wave, waves, growing bigger. It was getting pretty bad.
Katrina Schwartz: It’s getting so bad he’s losing control. He can’t calm himself down.
Josh: As it grew bigger, I was hyperventilating, I was a bit sweating. I was losing my mind.
Katrina Schwartz: I couldn’t help thinking that if I was in this situation, the first person I’d tell is my mom. But Josh was hesitant to do that. He was afraid of her reaction.
Josh: I was a bit mad at my mom because she didn’t understand. She thinks that it was because of the stress, and how I procrastinate, and how I'm irresponsible in a way.
Katrina Schwartz: Josh’s relationship with his mom has been tense.
Josh: She thinks I have it easy, that I shouldn’t be worried about school so much, ‘cuz I only have 3 classes. I only go to boxing. I don’t do a lot of stuff. She thinks it’s easy for me.
Katrina Schwartz: Listening to Josh I felt like I was there with him. And as terrifying as the actual panic attack sounded, what hit me more is how much he desperately wants to believe he can handle this on his own.
Josh: I find ways to cope. I find ways to manage and control it.
Katrina Schwartz: His go-to strategies are deep breathing, listening to music, and making himself some tea. He wants to believe he’s in charge of his anxiety, but this attack shook that belief.
Josh: It's never really gotten to the point to where it’s that bad.
Katrina Schwartz: So bad that he finally did tell his mom and went to a doctor for medication. He takes a generic of Xanax now when the panic attacks get bad. He says he’s still figuring out when to take the pills, and the few times he’s tried, they made him sleepy.
As I’m thinking back on Josh and Brianna’s stories there are some striking similarities. Both of them described their anxiety as overthinking. They both feel like they’re letting their parents down, but they don’t ask for help because they don’t want to be a burden.
I asked psychologist Nina Kaiser how she gets students to stop spinning out, obsessing about what just happened, or worrying about would could happen in the future.
Nina Kaiser: It's basically like junk mail or spam, right, in terms of like your thinking patterns. And so like going into it with that mindset, like, my job is to figure out is this spam or is this an accurate message. What evidence can I look for.
Katrina Schwartz: You have to kind of out-think your thoughts, she says. Find examples when that negative thinking wasn’t true. But that’s way easier said than done.
Nina Kaiser: That takes an immense amount of practice. Those thoughts tend to be really powerful and really automatic, the anxious thoughts. Right. So they're coming into your mind like really quickly, really loudly and it's challenging to step back and notice that there are other ways to think about the situation.
Katrina Schwartz: So, Ki, now that we have a sense of what’s going on physically and mentally when someone is anxious, I want to share some tips Nina Kaiser has for parents.
Ki Sung: Yes, please! I’m sitting here listening and worrying about dealing with this when my kids are teenagers.
Katrina Schwartz: Ok, so first off, the obvious, try not to put a ton of pressure on your kid. But, if they’re already struggling, it’s best not to judge. Help them feel like you’re on their team, and you’re solving the problem together.
Ki Sung: OK, what does that look like exactly?
Katrina Schwartz: Nina Kaiser suggests parents should research and discuss anxiety with their kid so that when it comes time to push them outside their comfort zone, and face things that make them anxious, they know it comes from a good place.
Ki Sung: Interesting. So it’s not always about helping them feel better in that moment when you see they’re unhappy?
Katrina Schwartz: Well, Nina Kaiser says kids need to learn that anxiety is trying to control them. And the best way to get out from under that is to push back.
Ki Sung: Oh, ok. So my takeaway is be curious, not frustrated.
Katrina Schwartz: You got it! That’s exactly right. And if you’re listening along and want more takeaways on how to recognize signs of anxiety and how to help your child deal with it, go to kqed.org/anxiety for more information.
Ki Sung: And if you know someone struggling with anxiety, consider sharing this episode with them. Subscribe or review in your podcast app. That helps other people find our show.
Ki Sung: MindShift is produced by Ki Sung, and me, Katrina Schwartz. Our editor is Julia Scott. Seth Samuel is our sound designer. Julie Caine is our head of podcasts, Ethan Lindsey is Executive Editor for News, and Holly Kernan is KQED’s Chief Content Officer.