How to tackle teen anxiety

With the growth of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram fuelling the insecurities of many teenagers, it's no wonder mental health is a growing issue among the young.

One in 10 young people will experience a mental health problem, and nearly three in four fear the reaction if they talked about this. That's according to the latest figures from Time to Change, a campaign that aims to change attitudes about mental health. Access to care can be sporadic or inhibiting and the effect can be devastating for the sufferer who is sometimes left to implement his or her own anxiety management and coping strategies in lieu of seeking professional help. The numbers of referrals to psychological therapies for 15-19 year olds were more than double for young women (34,000) in this age group, compared to young men (16,000). For this reason, children and young people's mental health services will receive £143 million this year. Alarmingly, around 12 million people in the UK suffer from some form of anxiety-related condition. Generalised anxietypanic disorderagoraphobiaOCDPTSDself-harmingeating disorders… the list goes on. So, how best to tackle these mental health issues endemic among the young?

Liam's story

'Pull yourself together' and 'stop being melodramatic' are not the most helpful of suggestions for a teen struggling with anxiety issues. But, Liam Davies, now 23, is not alone in this experience. He eventually sought professional help, having suffered largely in silence for the best part of four years. He says: 'I was (and still am) an introverted person. I enjoyed my own company from an early age. I was very much into drawing and writing, as well as the usual computer games and TV, which meant I was often lost in my imagination rather than outside playing and making friends. By the time I hit my mid-teens, it was apparent I had little-to-no communication skills with other young people. Making new friends - and maintaining the ones I did have - became extremely difficult. Also, I was very much into the geek culture (TV, films, sci-fi, etc) and rock music, which tended to be the complete opposite from everybody else, naturally making me an outcast.'

And so, as he grew older, he went from being the 'nice, but shy' kid, to the 'weird and lonely' teenager. Then the bullying set in. He says: 'I had everything from daily jeers and insults (especially if I had to talk in class) to my possessions being stolen and sometimes getting "jumped" in the corridors.

'I became increasingly lazy and ate more than I should, which led to weight gain around the ages of 15-16. I was a passive aggressive. I'd hit boiling point and completely explode at the smallest things. I also relied a lot on alcohol to stop the pain and worry, as well as gain confidence in social situations.'

Between the ages of 19-21, Liam was unemployed and this caused the anxiety and depression to raise its ugly head once again.

'Social media has a lot to answer for. It's very much a thing among young people to have a large amount of friends, followers and likes on posts. The more popular and attractive you are, the more affirmation you seem to receive,' he says.

'Even though this means absolutely nothing in reality, somebody suffering with anxiety or struggling to fit in can start comparing their lives and looks with others, which is just as unhealthy as wanting attention in the first place. The quicker other young people start realising it doesn't matter, the better it will be for them.

However, I do feel that social media can help in some ways. For some shy or anxious people, it can be a way of making your voice heard via writing or sharing personal photos. It can break the ice when you do eventually meet up with people.'

Turning point

In 2012, aged 19, Liam reached a turning point and sought help from his GP who referred him to several mental health groups in the NHS. He eventually attended a north London-based group, Improving Access to Physiological Therapies, and attended weekly counselling, as well as several behavioural workshops for communication and anger management. He notes: 'I was considered for - and ready to be put on - antidepressants, but this was held off when I started to improve.'

The 'talking therapy' approach suited Liam well and he acknowledges that talking to a professional who reserves judgement was really helpful. He explains: 'A lot of the time, they offer a general relaxed conversation, occasionally with a few questions and let you figure out the answers, which you'll inevitably do along the way. This provides a sense of self-achievement and pride, rather than simply thinking your mind has been "fixed". The behaviour workshops were very relaxed, too. Never did I feel I was put under the spotlight - and the interaction with volunteers didn't feel as daunting as first imagined.'

Aside from the therapy, he boasts an extremely supportive family and close circle of friends, which has only increased since. He finds great comfort in music and playing the guitar; 'being alone in my headphones' provides, at times, a welcome escape. He believes there still exists widespread ignorance about mental health issues - 'just because it's not a physical disease, like cancer, people see it as self-induced and easily avoided' - and feels there exists a need for education. He lists raising awareness of anxiety, depression and related mental health disorders amongst school-aged children, a programme informing teachers and medical staff to look for signs and a fast-track contact to therapies available.

Liam is now in the last year of a degree course in film production at Hertfordshire University and says he has 'effectively had the chance to redo a few teen years I felt were lost'. He admits he can still be introverted but, unlike before, now feels 100% comfortable and far from antisocial.

He adds: 'I love meeting new people now and alcohol is no longer needed to give me extra confidence. But mainly, my perception is changing. I'm enjoying my life far more these days and therapy definitely provided me with a new way of perceiving life and equipped me with the skills to overcome obstacles. Developing a proactive nature has helped greatly. I've noticed my approach to difficult situations, such as money worries and family death, is a lot calmer and I now usually seek a solution rather than give up.'

Top tips for teenage sufferers

  • You're not alone. The numbers struggling in the same situation are far more than realise
  • Never compare yourself to anyone else or believe what you see on social media. You're only seeing the good snippets of their lives
  • Don't assume there's a code to being a teenager
  • Some people are naturally more confident. We all develop in our own ways and at different speeds
  • Nobody who knows and cares for you will judge you
  • Learn who your real friends are - doesn't matter what age they are - and welcome their support
  • You can't avoid bullies, but you can find ways to deal with them
  • Be proud of who you are and of what you like and enjoy what you are doing
  • When the going gets tough, go for help. You're the only thing holding you back
  • If you want to tell people, then do so - the more support the better - but if not, it's nobody's business.

A leap of faith

In October, Liam is skydiving in aid of YoungMinds, a charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. To sponsor him, visit Liam's Just Giving page.


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