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Depression, anxiety dog modern teens
Friday July 27, 2007

This generation of Aussie adolescents is the most troubled, say psychologists

Body image, family breakdown, early physical maturity and the shadow of war are combining to produce the most vulnerable generation of Australians, experts in adolescent anxiety believe.

Youth is supposed to be a carefree time, but the latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that mental illness, including anxiety and depression, is the greatest burden of disease for people aged 15 to 24.

Leading adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Greg believes adolescent anxiety is on an uphill curve.

"In my opinion anxiety now ranks up there with depression as the most common presentation I get clinically as an adolescent psychologist here in Melbourne," says Dr Carr-Greg, who works at the Albert Road Centre for Health in Melbourne.

He believes the present generation is uniquely vulnerable to developing anxiety disorders, partly because for the first time their physical development is outstripping their emotional and psychological maturity.

"This is the first generation whose brain development is out of synch with their physical development.

"They're maturing much earlier than ever before physically, but they don't have the psychological maturation to match it.

"The second reason is that we have a divorce rate in some places of up to 56 per cent, so the security that was afforded them by having an intact family no longer applies."

Quoting research by the Australian Childhood Foundation, he says adolescents, usually defined as aged between 12 and 24, worry about everything from body image to going to war. A third of the kids were really frightened that one day they would actually have to fight in a war.

"Forty-seven per cent were worried about the way they look, just over half were terrified of being bullied in the school, 35 per cent worry they are overweight, and 41 per cent said they felt they weren't doing well enough."

But clinical psychologist Johnathan Gaston, who directs the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Clinic at Sydney's Macquarie University, doesn't think anxiety is increasing.

It's just that experts are getting better at picking it up.

"Is anxiety getting more prevalent? It's hard to answer because our ability to understand and pick those problems up has increased dramatically," he says.

"We certainly are much better at detecting it. And certainly with the advent of the internet, there's a lot more information people have available to them now to identify when they're having an anxiety problem.

"I don't think it's clear, necessarily, that anxiety has gone up dramatically, but I think ... a lot more people in the community are identifying it, and that's a positive because we do know what to do to help."

Anxiety is a normal response to danger, says psychologist Dr Marilyn Campbell, a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology - in fact, a deficit of anxiety can lead to dangerous risk- taking.

But it becomes a disorder when a person becomes excessively anxious in response to an imagined threat, or when the anxiety is disproportionate to the stimulus.

"For example, someone may not attend a university lecture because the only seat left is in the front row, and they are worried about being stared at, or falling over, or simply can't walk in in front of all those people" she says.

In children and teenagers, anxiety is often hidden, or dismissed as shyness.

Young people are also less likely to be put on medication for anxiety than they are for disorders like depression or ADHD, Dr Campbell says.

Dr Carr-Greg says the figures on anxiety should be a wake-up call to parents.

"For a kid to believe they are not doing well enough, they are possibly not getting the sort of positive reinforcement or encouragement that they should be getting.

"I think that that should be a little bit of a wake-up call for mums and dads that they need to start addressing some of these issues.

"I see this generation is the most vulnerable generation that Australia has ever seen."

Many parents are lost when it comes to distinguishing between normal teenage moodiness and serious anxiety.

But Drs Gaston and Campbell say there's one simple yardstick: if anxiety issues are interfering with a young person's life, or the life of their family, it's time for action.

"The concept we come back to is interference," Dr Gaston says.

"The reason most adults or adolescents or kids would seek help with us is because they recognise that their anxiety issues are starting to cause significant problems in their life.

"It can be that the adolescent is spending a lot of time upset or distressed and it's getting to the point that they or the parent don't want them to be experiencing that level of distress any more."

Dr Carr-Greg says because adolescents are developing anxiety issues at younger ages it's important to deal with them early, as they can lead to other problems like depression.

"I've never seen a kid with anxiety who didn't have a little bit of depression and I've never seen a kid who was depressed without a little bit of anxiety, so the two go hand in hand," he says.

"Anxiety disorders prevent them from making friends.

"They prevent them from having an opportunity to engage in school and profoundly impacts on the way in which they view themselves."
 

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