Orange County

Teen students report growing anxiety. Here’s how one school system is responding.

Chapel Hill High School will present a screening of the documentary "Angst" Tuesday, Jan. 30, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Chapel Hill High School will present a screening of the documentary "Angst" Tuesday, Jan. 30, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Submitted

Anxiety is a part of life, but what happens when being anxious keeps you from functioning? The Chapel Hill High School PTSA wants to raise more awareness about the presence of anxiety and its impact on adolescents.

To start the conversation, the PTSA organizations at Chapel Hill High School and East Chapel Hill High School, with funding from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation, will present a free screening and panel discussion of the documentary “Angst” Tuesday, Jan. 30, at Chapel Hill High School.

Angst,” is a documentary that examines how anxiety affects young people and its causes, using interviews with students, therapists and teachers. It was produced by Scilla Andreen and Karin Gornick of the IndieFlix production company. In a clip about the film, Gornick said the producers wanted to create a film that “evokes hope” and shows how simply talking about anxiety can be a first step to coping with it.

About three years ago the Chapel Hill PTSA decided to address mental health concerns of students, said Kirsten Barker, president of the organization. The PTSA has offered training for the school staff in how to help students with mental health concerns, and this screening and discussion are an extension of that effort, Barker said.

While anxiety is not new to adolescents, indicators of greater anxiety have continued to climb in the last five or six years, said Jim Wise, student assistance program specialist from Chapel Hill High and one of the panelists for the Tuesday program. “We’re talking about anxiety ... that is beyond their ability to control,” Wise said.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system conducts a Youth Risk Behavior Survey every two years. In the most recent survey, one in five high school students in the district said they had reached out for some kind of mental health support, Wise said. The National Institute of Mental Health, in statistics dating back to 2004, states that about 32 percent of adolescents reported some kind of anxiety disorder.

Why is there a greater prevalence of anxiety among adolescents? Part of the increase is “the 24/7 world they live in,” and the pressure of being connected all the time by cell phones and the internet, Wise said. Years ago, when students left school, they were better able to leave the stresses of that environment behind, but now it often follows them via cell phones, he said.

Academic pressure also “contributes to that sense of anxiety that a lot of people are having,” Wise said.

Having anxieties and mental health issues also carry stigma, Wise and Barker said. Part of the purpose to this program is to remove that stigma, to let students know that there are people at the school “who can help you through and give you what you need to be successful,” Wise said. The high schools, in addition to guidance counselors, also have social workers available, as do middle and elementary schools, he said.

He wants students to feel comfortable about reaching out, because adults often need more information from students to address problems in mental health, Wise said.

Joining Wise on the panel discussion will be Anne Bryan, assistant dean for student affairs at the UNC School of Education; Cindy Sortisio, therapist and co-owner of Counseling Services Inc.; and Charleen Enns, therapist in private practice.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

Want to go?

WHAT: Screening of documentary “Angst”

WHEN: Tuesday, Jan. 30, 7 p.m.

WHERE: Chapel Hill High School, Hanes Theater, 1709 High School Road

ADMISSION: Free. A panel discussion will follow the screen ing.