Teen Mental Health

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by Vanessa Bruce Little

Although Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental illnesses experienced by Canadians, they still only affect about 12% of the population over the course of a year. With the recent upsurge of anxiety talk in the media (see HERE or HERE), however, it’s no surprise that people think we’re facing an anxiety epidemic. Contributing to this proliferation is society’s recent tendency to pathologize anything negative, equating health with happiness instead of understanding that negative emotions are an essential and important part of the human experience.

We’ve gotten in the habit of using the word anxiety whenever we want to describe normal negative emotion. It’s a stand-in for stress, for worry, for nerves, for shyness, for any number of feelings that are completely and totally normal. And by using the word anxiety in their place, we not only make these emotions feel much scarier than they need to be, but also do a disservice to people who actually have an Anxiety Disorder by trivializing their experience.

Anxiety – real anxiety – is debilitating. It’s not just discomfort. It’s a sensation of fear that is excessive, overwhelming, can be all-consuming, often runs counter to rational thought, and pervades almost every aspect of someone’s life. So how can you tell when the fear your teen is experiencing is normal and when it might be something more? Here are a few guidelines:

  • Is the fear persistent over time (usually months)?
  • Is the fear always present in certain situations? (e.g., Every time they encounter a particular situation and not only occasionally)
  • Is the fear debilitating? Does it prevent them from functioning at school, at work, or in their relationships?
  • Is the fear out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the situation? (e.g., Looking out the window from the 10th floor of a building evokes the same fear as standing on the roof ledge of a 10-storey building)

There are several types of Anxiety Disorders that we tend to see in teenagers – Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Separation Anxiety Disorder is more common in children. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder are no longer considered Anxiety Disorders. Keeping in mind the guidelines above, here’s what you should know:

Social Anxiety Disorder:
Intense fear or anxiety in social situations where the person could be evaluated negatively by other people (e.g., social interactions, performances, or being observed).

Panic Disorder:
Experiencing recurrent unexpected panic attacks with no obvious cause. (Note that having panic attacks does not mean you have a panic disorder). The person will fear having another panic attack and/or avoid situations from which it is hard to escape in case they have another attack. This avoidance is called Agoraphobia.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder:
Excessive fear or anxiety about a number of events or activities that is difficult to control and occurs more days than not.

Remember, just because something causes stress or fear does not mean it’s an Anxiety Disorder. Many fearful reactions are completely normal versions of the stress response. If your teenager exhibits fear that is persistent, consistent, debilitating, and out of proportion; however, talk to your family doctor about what might be going on.

Other helpful resources:


Vanessa Bruce Little

Vanessa Bruce Little is the Knowledge Translation Lead at TeenMentalHealth.org (IWK Health Centre/Dalhousie University), a role for which she relies heavily on her background in Clinical Psychology, clinical training, and experience working with youth and families with behavioural, emotional, and social issues. In addition to developing the content of many of Teen Mental Health’s resources, Vanessa also coordinates large-scale projects and supervises students from a variety of disciplines. She strongly believes that you have to communicate in a way people will “hear” and that the quality of the content is irrelevant if your audience can’t understand it.

Read the entire blog series:

Depression Is More Than Just Having A Bad Day

Not Everything Is a Mental Illness

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