BeMeBeFree: a Campaign to Tackle Teen Anxiety

To no one’s surprise, researchers found a 20% increase in diagnoses of anxietybetween 2007 and 2012. Now in 2018 the rate is even higher. There are a plethora of reasons for this. Many blame social media, while some blame a lack of parenting – the list goes on and on. There’s no shortage of people to blame.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 38% of teen girls and 26% of teen boys have anxiety disorders, yet data shows that 40% of students with mental health concerns never seek help.

There are a ton of statistics showing how badly anxiety is affecting our youth and how it’s reaching alarming rates, but what I don’t see a lot of is thorough examinations of the culture that young people live in today. There are many countries worldwide where doctors don’t have to medicate children as young as 8. There are numerous other countries where the suicide rate and incidents of eating disorders in young people haven’t reached epidemic proportions.

Why is this happening at this rate in America?

I created the BeMeBeFree Campaign to take a look at how anxiety affects our youth, but instead of hearing about it from academics, I wanted teens to share their story with us on our website www.bemebefree.org. Storytelling is a creative form that teens really gravitate to, so I decided to create a story sharing campaign where teens could share their story and encourage others to do the same.

Research has shown that if someone with anxiety writes about how they’re feeling and share it with others, it reduces their angst.

Carolyn Costin, a leading anxiety therapist working on the BeMeBeFree Campaign told me that “with little down time, less sleep and constant social media vigilance, our modern technology, cultural pressures and instant image access create an anxious suffering in our youth in ways that we are just beginning to fully understand.”

I’m reaching out to 20,000 high schools, 3,000 universities and 800 mental health organizations asking them to invite students to submit stories of how they’ve dealt with anxiety. We’ll be posting them on the story community page of our website so others can read them and hopefully become empowered to share their story. This will start the process of teens building a community and creating something that’s important to them – a sense of belonging to something.

Credit: Be Me Be Free

One of the unique things about this campaign is that Lifetime have agree to turn a story that we select from the submissions into a movie to air next year. During the process of making the movie I plan to implement various initiatives to keep engaging with our audience to keep the discussion going.

Shukree Tilghman, a writer/producer of the hit NBC show ‘This is Us’ has come aboard the BeMeBeFree Campaign/movie as an Executive Producer.

Ultimately, our campaign goal is to improve the culture of mental health in America and connect our youth. Submissions are open until 5 October 2018. 

Taking Premenstrual Symptoms in Teenagers Seriously

Moody, irritated, short-tempered – these are some of the words my family and friends used to describe me as a teenager. Indeed, that’s how I felt most of the time, especially during ‘that time of the month.’

Like many women – around 90% of them according to the U.S. Department of Health – I’ve experienced symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) such as cramps, irritability, and anxiety. I can still remember the feeling of relief to read in my teen magazines (this was before the smartphone era) that the PMS symptoms significantly affecting my life were not as ‘abnormal’ as I thought, and that I wasn’t the only one experiencing them.

However, my experience with those symptoms turned out not to be so ‘normal’ after all. I’ve experienced symptoms of anxiety disorders since I was a child and getting my period only made things worse.

It was only when I reached age 24 – 16 years after the onset of my anxiety disorders and 12 years after my first period – that I sought out professional help to deal with my symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and I had symptoms of borderline personality disorder and PME (premenstrual exacerbation of underlying disorders), too. I began taking medication and going to therapy.

Thankfully, despite all the struggles – including missing classes at school and outings with friends due to severe cramps and debilitating anxiety – I somehow managed my symptoms throughout my teenage years. However, I am far from alone in having struggled with menstrual and mental health during adolescence.

Recent data shows a worrying picture of teenage girls’ mental health. World Health Organization data published in UNFPA’s 2016 The State of World Population report indicates that suicide is the leading cause of death among teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 worldwide.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States in 2015, suicide rates of teenage girls aged 15 to 19 were the highest for that group in 40 years – the rates had doubled from 2007 to 2015. Research has also indicated that at least 20% of teenage girls experience moderate to severe premenstrual symptoms that impact their functioning, and that premenstrual disorders such as PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) often onset during adolescence.

Empowering teenage girls with knowledge about menstrual and mental health, including relevant information about PMS, PME, and PMDD could be a significant step towards changing those worrisome statistics.

The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Women’s Mental Health provides a handy guide about PMS and PMDD to assist teenage girls in identifying possible symptoms – which can show up around ten days before the beginning of a menstrual cycle – through phrases such as:

“I feel sad and depressed – life is just not as fun.”

“My parents and I get into a lot more fights, and I just want to scream at everyone.”

“Getting my homework done takes so much more energy.”

“Sometimes I can’t fall asleep before my period, other times I sleep all day long.”

The truth is, whether PMS, PME, or PMDD (which is a recognized disorder by both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization), teenage girls’ experiences of their menstrual and mental health should be taken seriously – it’s their well-being, health, and lives at stake.

If I could say something to my teenage self, it would be this:

No, you’re not ‘abnormal’ for experiencing these symptoms, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously, and that you have to live the rest of life miserably because of them. One day you’ll find the strength to advocate for yourself, and you’ll find people who will show you that it’s possible to live a better life, even with your mental health conditions. The road will still be hard, and very dark times will come; but girl, you’re a warrior, and you’re going to make it through.

More resources about PMS and PMMD for teenage girls can be found at the Center for Young Women’s Health, and Gia Allemand Foundation/International Association for Premenstrual Disorders which also offers a self-screen for PMDD and PME.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help immediately. In the United States, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For a list of international suicide hotlines, visit www.buddy-project.org/hotlines.

Don’t be Afraid to Say ‘I Have Anxiety’

The other day, I was having dinner with some girlfriends when one of them opened up about experiencing anxiety episodes over the past few months. She was really embarrassed, confused and crying.

As our conversation deepened, 3 of the 4 people at the table revealed they have been coping with anxiety for a long time. I was one of them. I sat there thinking: how is it possible that I have known these people for my entire life and yet we’ve never mentioned that we suffer from this condition?

Everyone can feel anxious from time to time – it’s a natural reaction of the body and the brain to certain situations or events. But an anxiety disorder is something else.

Have you ever felt as though you spend every single minute of every single day worrying over the slightest thing? Have you ever felt as though your heart is bursting out of your chest? Do you tend to catastrophize every situation in your life? Do you have irrational fears? If you said yes to at least two of those questions then…congratulations! You may have an anxiety disorder.

You must be thinking, congratulations? I’m miserable!

But I congratulate you because recognizing and admitting you are struggling with a mental health issue is the first step towards dealing with it and feeling better.

We need to start acknowledging anxiety for what it is so we can eliminate the stigma around it. 

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in Mexico, affecting 14.3% of the population. To put that into context, there are more people living with anxiety in our country than there are people living with diabetes, yet we rarely hear about those in mental distress. Having an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and crippling at the best of times – add people calling you crazy or helpless and society judging you and things can become much worse.

Since feeling anxious is common, anxiety isn’t often thought of as a mental health issue. I believe that this is where the problem originates. Anxiety is real and in Mexico it is still underestimated. Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and 14 – 20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week? If not, it’s not your fault: too often mental health is put on the back burner and seen as less important than physical health.

If you’ve experienced anxiety and wondered why it happens, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including Social Phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and many others.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment. If you are suffering, don’t be afraid to seek help or counseling. You may think you are alone and that no one will understand what you’re going through, but by opening up to people close to you and receiving the treatment you deserve, we will all be one step closer to breaking the stigma around anxiety. If you sense that someone close to you might be suffering, approach them in a way that makes it feel safe for them to open up to you.

It might sound like a cliché but it really is true: you are not alone. Speak up. 

Why Do Women Suffer More From Stress?

Statistically, women suffer from depression and anxiety disorders more frequently than men. The only exception to this is social anxiety disorder, which seems to occur in equal numbers regardless of sex. For all other forms of anxiety, including everything from acute stressors to diagnosed anxiety disorders, women tend to be the forerunners.

Anxiety disorders can be debilitating. They can increase the risk of diseases, including heart disease, which kills 17.7 million people globally every year. They can also increase the risk of depression and suicide in people who suffer from them and can prevent people from being able to function on a day-to-day basis. Mental illness can dramatically affect your standard of living.

While we know that women suffer from anxiety more frequently than men, the reasons why are still unclear. It’s most likely that there is a combination of nature and nurture at the heart of it, meaning that some factors are biological and some are environmental. Most studies will not be able to account for all of the influences, but we can consider them from a broad perspective.

Nature

Research shows that women tend to have more hormonal fluctuations than men do. Some of the hormones that surge during pregnancy, for example, are correlated with an increased tendency to develop obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which is classified as perinatal OCD. Hormonal fluctuations may contribute to an increased level of stress, but they don’t necessarily account for the increased frequency of lifelong anxiety diagnoses in women.

There do appear to be some genetic factors. Based on studies of twins and family records, women are more likely to have stress and anxiety issues. These studies are the best indicators we have that some stress is due to a difference between the sexes and rather than environmental conditions.

Nurture

A key indicator that environment influences stress is that prevalence differs between cultures. Women in North America have been found to be more stressed than women in other cultures, despite generally having better access to the resources to create what many would consider relatively more comfortable lives for themselves.

This cultural difference could be explained by the fact that stress is often measured by Western standards, so it’s possible this is a false positive result. However, I believe it’s still fair to assume that the environment a person is in can contribute to their stress levels.

Today, most women still perform the majority of the unpaid work at home, despite joining or wanting to join the workforce. Even as more women enter the workforce, they is often an expectation that they will continue to take responsibility for housework.

Of course, it’s a difficult feat to keep up a home and a career without one interfering with the other. Women are also still generally expected to be caretakers – the ones responsible for remembering birthdays and anniversaries, sending out cards and making sure everyone in the family is fed and taken care of.

Many women do attest to having a caretaker mentality, though it’s hard to say if this is innate or created from societal expectations. While every woman is different, the responsibility and expectation can take an emotional toll. And while it’s becoming more common for men to take on the same at-home responsibilities as women, I don’t believe that it is expected of men in the same way.

The mental health gap between men and women may be partially biological, but it doesn’t have to be as wide as it is. Ultimately, working toward a more equitable environment will benefit everyone.