How Anxiety Became Society's Main Disorder
Last winter Sarah Fader, a 37-year-old social media consultant in the U.S who has a generalised anxiety disorder, sent a text to a friend about an impending visit.
When a quick response failed to materialise, she posted on Twitter to her 16,000-plus followers. “I don’t hear from my friend for a day – my thought, they don’t want to be my friend anymore,” she wrote, appending the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike.
Thousands of people were soon offering up their own examples under the hashtag; some were retweeted more than 1,000 times. You might say Fader struck a nerve. “If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious,” she says, “there’s something wrong with you”.
Anxiety has become our everyday argot, our thrumming lifeblood: not just on Twitter (the ur-anxious medium, with its constant updates), but also in blogger diaries, celebrity confessionals (Et tu, Beyoncé?), a hit Broadway show (Dear Evan Hansen), a magazine startup (Anxy, a mental-health publication based in Berkeley, California), buzzed-about television series (like Maniac, a coming Netflix series by Cary Fukunaga, the lauded True Detective director) and, defying our abbreviated attention spans, on bookshelves.
According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 per cent of girls aged 13 to 17, and 26 per cent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses in the U.S, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students by the Centre for Collegiate Mental Health.
Meanwhile, the number of web searches involving the term has nearly doubled over the past five years, according to Google Trends. The trend line for “depression” was relatively flat.
To Kai Wright, host of the politically themed podcast The United States of Anxiety from radio station WNYC, such numbers are all too explicable. “We’ve been at war since 2003, we’ve seen two recessions,” Wright says.
“Just digital life alone has been a massive change. Work life has changed. Everything we consider to be normal has changed. And nobody seems to trust the people in charge to tell them where they fit into the future.” For On Edge, Petersen, a longtime reporter for The Wall Street Journal, travelled back to her alma mater, the University of Michigan, to talk to students about stress:
One student, who had ADHD, anxiety and depression, said the pressure began building in middle school when she realised she had to be at the top of her class to get into high school honours classes, which she needed to get into advanced placement classes, which she needed to get into college.
This is not an isolated incident for Generation X.