MetroFocus: May 4, 2023


May is Mental Health Awareness Month and tonight we look at the impact of anxiety on children and teens. American adolescence is undergoing a drastic change. Three decades ago, the gravest public health threats to teenagers in the United States came from binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy and smoking. These have since fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health concern: soaring rates of mental health disorders. A new documentary, “Anxious Nation” unfolds the epidemic of anxiety in America and explores why we are such an anxious nation. The project was born in 2018, when producer/co-director and writer Laura Morton felt overwhelmed and isolated trying to understand her daughter Sevey’s extreme anxiety. With a camera in hand, Laura and her team traveled the country talking to parents, kids, and experts about their experiences with anxiety and what they were doing to manage it. In 2021, which saw our families through the most intense time of COVID and how the pandemic impacted their already fragile state, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth joined the project to co-direct. Tonight – Laura, Vanessa and Sevey join MetroFocus to discuss the film and how the crisis of anxiety and mental health in America is specifically impacting kids and their families.


Tonight, the mental health crisis affected America's kids.

The new documentary, 'Anxious Nation,' takes a look at the anxiety crisis.

'MetroFocus' starts right now.

This is 'MetroFocus,' with Rafael Pi Roman, Jack Ford, and Jenna Flanagan.

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

Filomen M. D'Agostino Foundation.

The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund.

Bernard and Denise Schwartz.

Barbara Hope Zuckerberg.

And by Jody and John Arnhold.

Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

The Ambrose Monell Foundation.

Estate of Roland Karlen.

Rafael: Good evening, and welcome to 'MetroFocus.'

Many people in our society struggle with anxiety, given the mounting pressures of modern life.

What is alarming is how hard anxiety is impacting American children, amounting to a mental health crisis that got worse during the Covid pandemic.

A new documentary called Anxious Nation explores this through first-hand accounts of the often crippling impact anxiety can have on kids and their families.

Here is a look.

It makes my body stop everything it is doing and just break down.

I was hyperventilating, I could not breathe. She said, 'I think you are having a panic attack.'

Anxiety is like worrying about your shadow.

You start spiraling.

I pray about it, I think about it.

I did not think anybody else was having the same issues and I did not want to be judged.

Rafael: Join us now as we meet the filmmakers behind 'Anxious Nation,' Vanessa Roth, Laura Morton, and her daughter, Sevey.

Thank you for having us.

Rafael: Let me start with the filmmakers.

What made you want to do this film?

What do you think most of us do not know?

I am the parent of an anxious child and in 2018 I was feeling defeated as a mother.

I felt like I was failing my daughter because she was struggling with anxiety.

She was 10 or 11 years old at the time.

It seemed like everything we tried was not working.

I felt very frustrated as a parent because I thought I was doing everything to help her.

I put a post on Facebook and I was really surprised by the response.

It was the private messages that came in that startled me because I thought what was happening in our home was only happening in our home.

And this was in 2018.

Rafael: Vanessa, what got you involved in the film?

Going back to the moment where Laura asked me to be part of the film, I said no because I was also dealing with my own kids and all their friends who were feeling so anxious and overwhelmed.

I had teenagers at home and felt it was too close to home for me.

I was overwhelmed by the concept.

But when I didn't come back into it, it was after we had been dealing with COVID and the challenges of it.

I watched my kids and their friends and things had gotten so much worse for them.

So many things had gotten to be so overwhelming for them that I felt it would be negligent not to be part of something that could give parents answers or ideas, and I also love the idea that Laura had gone into this with wanting to go into the interior lives of kids and their parents.

That was something that was unique and it was not all just experts talking.

It was from the perspective of kids and families.

Rafael: Laura said she noticed your anxiety when you were about 10 or 11.

Is that when they started for you or did you start earlier?

What was it that you were feeling and how did you know you were not supposed to be feeling it?

I first noticed when I was a little bit younger, around seven.

I used to go to a summer camp and it was supposed to be this fun thing.

I was with 12 other girls where we were doing so many fun things and I cried every day, I wanted to come home, I did not want to be there.

That is when I noticed it was not normal because everyone around me was having such a good time and for some reason I could not have a good time.

I think that is when they became most prevalent for me that this was not normal.

Rafael: Laura, when did you discover this was not a passing phase?

I noticed the anxiety at a younger age.

I had been trying to get Sevey help for many years.

In my mind is started around the time when she was three or four.

We took her to the pediatrician who said maybe it was her diet.

Then we took her to a specialist.

They said she needs more fiber.

Then I took her to a therapist who said she seemed fine.

It took us seven years to get an answer.

I just wanted somebody to tell me what was going on.

That is what is so frustrating for so many people.

One of the experts says it takes families two-eight years to seek help.

It took us seven years to get an answer.

Imagine if you are a family struggling, how frustrating that is.

Rafael: It is awful and you can see the heartbreak in the kids and the parents.

A question that is raised early in the film is whether this situation is nature or nurture.

One of the therapists in the film said it is both.

I think that is pretty profound because I think it happens both on the family level, but then I see too it is on a societal level of how are we as a society nurturing our kids.

I think none of us are doing a great job on that.

I do not to blame parents for that but we do not have a lot of the skills needed right now to deal with all the things coming at kids.

The amount of information at all times.

There is the old quote, the world is too much with us.

I do think it is both.

Rafael: Let's talk about the nurture part.

Families in societies have always been imperfect.

They have always had mixed results with their young.

What is it about Americans or Westerners today that makes us so imperfect as parents that we are creating a situation that is worse than ever?

When I first set out to make the film, we had a generation of really anxious parents who never coped with their own anxiety and that generation is now raising their kids to not suffer the way they suffered.

In the process of doing what we think is coming from a really loving place and what we think is the right thing, we are doing more damage than good with our kids.

We are contributing to the problem out of this notion that we do not want them to hurt.

To me, that is one of the biggest issues.

There is a nature particular, where there are some kids who are born to be natural athletes or musicians, and some are born to be more anxious.

If they are born into bat, the likelihood is that their parents are anxious.

Of course, you have situational anxiety.

For Sevey, school shootings are a big thing that triggers her anxiety.

These kids are growing up with things we did not.

They worry about climate change, they worry about if somebody will shoot up for school.

The anxiety is a natural reaction.

Rafael: I recently heard a comedian say that it really does take a village to raise a child, but that unfortunately, the people in charge of the village nowadays are the village idiots.

The people who brought us pointless wars, a great recession, perhaps a coming Great Depression once again.

Is that fair?

Are we contributing to this, not only because we are parents and flawed, but because we have a flawed system of governance?

Do we ever.

When I first set out to make Anxious Nation, the question I was asking in 2018 was are we more anxious or are we just more aware of it?

In 2023, that is kind of a moot question.

The government has been aware of this crisis for decades.

Even at federal, state and local levels, we do not have the resources to meet the demands.

We sent a bunch of kids off to college, went to their college mental health center is seeking help.

Nobody was prepared for the onslaught.

Before COVID, there was on average about 3-12 week wait time to get an intake appointment.

3-12 weeks is an impossible number to work through this with no tools and no resources.

Rafael: Kids are right to be anxious.

It would sort of be a little bit of a disconnect if they were not anxious with all the things they live with.

That is why the film acknowledges that and what are we going to do about that?

Oh the things that are pressing down on our kids are not going to change.

We are not going to solve all of those things.

We have a complex world and people are complex individuals so it is more like Laura had said, Looking at what resources we have now for kids and for parents too.

How do we learn some ways to live together through these different generations and becoming a better village.

Rafael: Aside from the particular stimuli that are hitting us and the resources available, what about the argument that the fundamental problem is that at some point, we in this country began to assume that that life is often painful and that the way to transcend that and to get happiness is to develop a resiliency, an ability to seek happiness despite the realities, but instead, we are at the point where we are teaching our children that if we do not want to hurt our feet we should cover the world in leather instead of putting on our shoes.

Is that fair?

Looking at my own children and their friends, I have found so much truth in the idea of searching for your own meaning and purpose and feeling needed and part of something, becoming part of a community.

Using that anxiety and putting it into something that means something to you.

One of my daughters is now a teacher, the other is a songwriter.

I have a son who is trying to figure out what he is interested in.

I see that their feelings about themselves improved so much when they are giving something, contributing something to something that matters to them.

I think that statistically, we are a lonely and disconnected community right now.

Even in a world where her kids feel so connected through their devices, they are not really connecting in person with their friends.

So I think that is a really big piece of the equation.

I think what we have had is this falling away of community.

We know for example that kids have a spiritual hunger but they have turned away from their parents religion.

Historically, the church, the synagogue, wherever you worship is the place you would go to connect with other people.

We were never meant to be singular.

It really is about community.

One of the reasons we are so excited about this film is because it is about creating a community around something we all share in common and to take the shame and stigma out of it.

Rafael: Let's talk about that shame and stigma.

A lot of the therapists in your film focus on the problem of stigma and how it exacerbates the initial anxiety.

Sevey, to what degree did you feel your anxiety was a problem?

That your fear that your peers would know about your struggles with anxiety made that anxiety worse?

Was that a reality for you?

I would say at some point.

Lately, no, because me and my peers are so open about it.

Lately at school, I have noticed everybody so open about their mental health struggles.

We have mental health week and all of these things at my school that talks openly about mental health.

When I was younger, I definitely , yeah, I would say for sure because I did not know really how to communicate what I was feeling.

I did not want people to judge me for it.

Rafael: I wonder as the stigma dissipates and people are more willing to talk about it, I wonder if those kids that you said when you were younger, I wonder if when the stigma disappeared, you found out that maybe they were not as happy as they appeared?

Yes, for sure.

I noticed that now because I am still friends with some people from when I was younger.

I kept going to that same summer camp and I could see how everybody's feelings progress.

There are some communities where the shame and stigma still exists deeply.

And it is really important where a mental health issue is considered weakness and it is really important that we work very hard to help those communities move through -- the black and brown communities have a lot of shame and stigma around mental health, but they also have a lot of distrust of the medical system in this country.

Is it getting better?

I think it is getting better.

We have a great, diverse cast that talks about it.

There are a lot of communities that simply do not talk about it.

Thankfully, people like Taraji P. Henson is out there activating.

There was so much eye-opening discoveries as we were making this film.

Sevey's schools have these programs.

But there are some schools that do not have these programs.

What is happening to those kids?

That keeps me up at night.

Rafael: Before I saw your film, if somebody had asked me what the role of social media is in this exploding anxiety among children, I would say it is probably the whole story.

But learning that this inside he happens so young among these kids, makes me think maybe not.

What is the answer?

I do not know if I have the answer, but I am laughing because my son is 11 and she says do not be one of these adults who says it is just social media because actually that is where I am connecting with my friends.

She says this is how we talk to each other and it is not contributing to my anxiety.

To me, I do think part of it is a constant, these little bits of things that are going into your head all the time from all over the world.

There is that constant stimulus.

Laura had said too that there is a history of systemic racism and there is a history of how we judge people who were different from ourselves.

There are all these things with the social media that starts exacerbating whatever messages and it is hard to really filter through all of that.

But I do not think it is the whole story.

It starts younger.

When Sevey was talking about camp and shame, one of my daughters in high school, a lot of times she would not go to a party and she felt that her friends did not understand, that they did not understand why she did not want to be with them.

Like Sevey said come out when you get older and start talking to your friends, it is not so different anymore and it is pretty normal.

Rafael: We have about three or four minutes.

I want to get Sevey into this.

In the film, you talk about social media and worry about not having enough followers.

To what degree did social media exacerbate your anxiety?

I think there are many key factors that go into this.

It is not the core of my anxiety.

I would say, definitely does contribute.

I know when I do not have my phone, I am a happier person.

I have never gotten affected by cyber bullying, but I know people who have and I know what kind of affect it has on you.

Whether it is somebody commenting on your looks, whatever might be, you take that with you and you think about that for a really long time.

Even if it is a random stranger, the effect is insane.

Rafael: You talked about COVID that exacerbated everything, particularly the lockdowns.

You have experience in this and doing this film taught you something.

What is the one piece of information you can tell our viewers who are experiencing this with their kids that they should do?

That is a great question.

First, I learned that what my daughter is feeling is very real.

It was easy for me to dismiss it, to think she is just in a phase or it is an inconvenient time for you to be doing this.

What I realize was I was putting my own expectations and processing her anxiety through my mature eyes.

Once I realized -- I had never walked in her shoes and I do not know what it feels like for Sevey, but I have a greater awareness now.

The other thing is that you have to have a conversation about this.

Any meaningful change within your home has to be systemic, it has to start with the entire family, you cannot just fix the child, especially if your contributing to the problem.

Thanks for tuning into 'MetroFocus.'

You can take our award-winning program with you wherever you go with 'Better focus,' the podcast.

Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss an episode.

Simply ask your smart speaker to play it.

Also available at, and on the NPR One app.

'MetroFocus' is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

Filomen M. D'Agostino Foundation.

The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund.

Bernard and Denise Schwartz.

Barbara Hope Zuckerberg.

And by Jody and John Arnhold, Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Estate of Roland Karlen.

©2023 WNET. All Rights Reserved. 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

WNET is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Tax ID: 26-2810489