“I can’t handle this anxiety.”
“I’m stressed and depressed.”
“Doing alright. Just getting by.”
“I don’t know what to do. I’m angry.”
These are a few of the common responses I get when I ask friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers “How are you doing?” Ranging from teenagers to the elderly, they’re all feeling some mix of angry, fearful, confused, lost, regretful, annoyed, depressed, heart-broken, cautious, grieving, resentful, shocked, cynical, suspicious, and tired.
In 2013, I was a student teacher. Eager to dive into the classroom and pull wonder and curiosity out of 21 sweetly cute elementary students. In my second week there, I was still getting my feet under me when we had a whole-school drill. While previous schools had done fire drills, lock-downs, and evacuation drills, this was my first active shooter drill. Sandy Hook was a mere two months earlier, and every school was bracing. America believed (and still does) that preparing kids who still believe in Santa Claus for a shooter was a better approach than overhauling gun laws.
We huddled in the back of the classroom away from the door, and hid behind the cubbies. My jokester class clown of a girl ran towards the front of the classroom laughing and shooting finger guns. My sweet, never-raise-his-hand-to-read-aloud boy held my hand tight. When I turned my head, I was face-to-face with a Strawberry Shortcake backpack. When the principal tried to break into the door, my students crowded closer to me. My classroom had never been that quiet, that tense, and it thoroughly creeped me out. The memory of hiding with twenty 8 and 9 year old kids to prepare ourselves if an adult with a gun came to kill us haunts me.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 3 teens will experience an anxiety disorder. According to a 2016 survey from the American College Health Association, 58.4% of undergraduates reported “overwhelming anxiety,” up 8.5% from 2011.
Younger children, many experts reason, have a higher amount of resilience or the ability to “bounce back”. We used to warn that resilience was lower in children from vulnerable homes, think food insecurity, job losses, or housing instability, since this ability is tied to our environmental stability. This crisis, like all great American traumas, is color-coded by the income level of your family.
What happens when global trauma is your entire childhood experience? When your earliest memories include hiding from shooters and not hugging your friends because of a pandemic and all of the adults around you bathing in both stress and mental health issues?
I think about those third graders often. They’re 15 or 16 years old now. Their childhood has been shaped by living in a country gripped by crisis and a world on fire. They’ve seen a bigoted rapist be elected to the highest office, Hispanic children in cages, multiple black deaths, hate crimes, the erosion of the slight veneer of civility, the equivalent of the Great Depression, and the world literally being on fire because we completely bungled our response to climate change.
As a society, we need to start preparing and responding now to our children’s mental health. In current America, everyone’s home is either precariously stable or not stable at all, and our children are bearing the brunt.