From ages 11 to 14, most days started on my knees on cold, hard tiles with my head over a toilet. Vomiting was just as much a part of my morning routine as brushing my teeth. My body was racked with so much anxiety about school and the unfortunate response felt constantly sick.
For a long time, my family and I thought I was “nervous” or “stressed out,” but it was more than that. It was an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. I had an intense fear of being called up in class. I checked obsessively to make sure I remembered to bring my homework, even checking and rechecking my backpack before leaving the house and throughout the day. I was constantly worried about whether I was saying the right thing to my co-workers – all people I thought was way cooler than me. I didn’t want to get out of the car several days a week when it was time for my dad to drop me off. To help me get into the day, he came up with a little secret code. As he drove off, he tapped his brake lights three times to stand for “I love you.” I didn’t go into the corridors until I saw those flashes of red and I thought: just hold on for another seven hours and then you’ll be here again and get in Mom’s car to go home.
Then there were the phobias (which I didn’t have the terminology for at the time). The first is the wind. Yes, you read that right… the natural movement of air. It triggered a full-blown panic attack – in fact it still can, but I now have coping mechanisms. I’m talking palpitations, sweaty palms, body tremors, shallow breathing to the point where I need my inhaler. At least it has a name: Ancraophobia. The other not. It is an irrational fear of things moving in a repetitive motion. As in, watching a carousel or ferris wheel will bring me to tears. Those pirate boats at the fair swinging back and forth? Never mind. I can’t even look at it without a full body sweat. It also makes it quite difficult to keep calm on a boat given the constant rocking. As my father likes to say, you can’t make this up.
But here’s the thing: At the time, my parents had no idea how bad it was. It would be years before all of this was properly diagnosed, and even longer before I fully understood the extent of my anxiety disorder and the fact that it was with me forever. Part of this was because I didn’t have the words. I wasn’t used to hearing about anxiety and mental health was still quite a taboo topic at the time. But part of that was because of the shame I felt and the assumption that I should shut up and work through my struggles on my own. Believe me, if my parents had known that I was getting physically ill every morning, they would have acted immediately. Somewhere inside me was a voice telling me that no one else should know about this. My sister heard me get sick most mornings as she got ready for school on the other side of the door. When she asked me if I was okay, I often pretended I didn’t know what she was talking about.
Now I talk about it much more easily. Although, I admit, writing about my fear of wind in Teen Vogue to live forever on the internet makes me feel pretty vulnerable. Being wired this way has made me very passionate about reporting on mental health. That’s why I pushed for an entire special dedicated to teens and their mental health to air Thursday, March 16 on NBC News NOW. If I can be a small reason that someone could recognize that they are not alone and there is no shame in dealing with this then I am doing my job well as a person blessed with the platform I have.
In the hundreds of hours I’ve spent reporting on mental health and talking to my mostly teenage Snapchat followers, I’ve realized there’s something else at play here. I do believe that it is harder to grow up now than it was when I was a child. Social media has made body image top of mind, beauty standards unrealistic, and FOMO constant. Sexual violence is on the rise. COVID kept children isolated. Climate change threatens our future. Information about all of this is constantly available and provided and has an impact on mental health.
A recent CDC study puts some numbers around that theory, and they are heartbreaking. For many people they are shocking. To the teens I’ve spoken to, they’re not surprising. 42% of high school students say they have experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. 22% have seriously considered suicide.
When it comes to girls, the numbers are significantly worse. 57% of the women had those lingering feelings of hopelessness and 30% seriously considered suicide. Almost a quarter of female high school students have actually made a plan.
I talked about the report with the CDC Director of Adolescent and School Health, Kathleen Ethier, PhD, and she said something that really stuck with me. When we talk about how, frankly, frighteningly the numbers are about teenage girls specifically, she said we have an important distinction to make. We can’t ask the question, “What’s wrong with our girls?” We have to ask ourselves, “What happens to our girls?” The answer is: a lot.
In the same CDC report came the disturbing statistic that 14% of high school girls say they have been forced to have sex. This number shocked me, but horribly enough, this number of different teens I’ve spoken to that you’ll hear about in our NBC News NOW special didn’t shock. They could describe to me in detail how they avoid certain hallways or walk around without a buddy at a football game at a rival high school. And remember what I said about it being harder to grow up now? They also pointed to the increase in misogynistic content online, saying they directly relate rhetoric from people like Andrew Tate to the behavior they experience. It’s a rabbit hole I covered last year Get to know the press reports and it’s terrifying.
With the ubiquity of social media and this generation’s lifetime exposure to it, you’d have to be a robot not to feel sad or hopeless — at least sometimes — when you have an endless stream of content that probably makes you feel bad about it. yourself, right in the palm of your hand. If your friends hang out without you, you’ll see it. If your ex has a new girlfriend, you will see it. People you know and people you don’t look happy, fulfilled and successful? You’ll see plenty of it. People who look impossibly beautiful and in shape? No question. And by the way, as I mentioned last week NBC Night Newsguys aren’t immune to body image issues or being diagnosed with eating disorders and researchers are finally paying attention.
I hope watching our special, Teenagers under pressure: mental health and social media, anyone who is struggling will find comfort in the space made for this conversation. I also hope that anyone who is not struggling gains a better understanding of what their peers are going through and resources to help those in need. My greatest joy in making this was connecting with high school students who are willing to open up, be honest, and hope to help someone else. If you’re reading this, you’re wondering, what can I do to help? Be the listener. Be the one who checks in. If you are an adult, make genuine connections with the young people in your life and help them gain perspective. As you’ll hear, that’s what our teens are really looking for, even if they don’t have the words to ask.
And if you are someone who is not feeling well right now, please hold on. The storms will subside. I’ve been there, and now I’m writing for it Teen Vogue. We’ll see you. We need you. And I’m here to tell you stories.
Teenagers under pressure: mental health and social media airs tonight, March 16, on NBC News NOW at 10:30 p.m. ET. Anchored by NBC News’ Savannah Sellers, interviews with a group of teenagers from Fairfax, Virginia, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Teen Vogue‘s Fort Latifi.
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Originally appeared in Teen Vogue