Getting Help for Childhood Anxiety
Sarah Wulff, 14, and her father, Jim, of San Anselmo, discuss Sarah's struggles with anxiety in the documentary Angst.
It was a watershed moment for filmmakers Karin Gornick and Scilla Andreen. Gornick, a San Anselmo single mom, was struggling with her teen son’s debilitating anxiety disorder and deciding whether to send him to a residential treatment facility. Andreen had just lost a co-worker to suicide, one who had been urging her to make a film about mental health.
“Between her experience and my experience, we said we’ve got to make this film,” says Gornick.
The result was Angst, a nearly hour-long documentary that aims to shine a light on the growing epidemic of anxiety among children and teens. Anxiety is the number one mental health problem in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Rates of anxiety disorders and suicide are on the rise among young people.
Gornick and Andreen, who had previously worked together on the documentary Screenagers, co-executive produced the film through Andreen’s Seattle-based IndieFlix, which makes and distributes social impact films.
Since Angst debuted in October, it has been shown more than 400 times at schools, community forums, hospitals, workplaces and other venues. The movie is always followed by a panel discussion, which Gornick says is critical for starting community conversations and helping people find the resources they need. New screenings and panels are scheduled regularly, with the next Bay Area screening on May 14 in Los Gatos. (See details below.) Several companies, including Microsoft, are also showing the film to employees this month since May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
Many of those who shared their compelling personal stories in the film about suffering from – and getting help with – anxiety are Bay Area teens, teachers and parents, including Gornick herself.
Filmmakers interviewed subjects from The Marin School, White Hill Middle School and Drake High, all in Marin, as well as from WayPoint Academy, a Utah boarding school for teen boys with anxiety disorders, which Gornick’s son attended. Decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps also is featured, talking about the impact of anxiety on his life.
“Our goal was to break the stigma,” says Gornick. “Talking about (anxiety) is the first step to finding a pathway for support and letting people know how much help and hope there really is.”
Angst will be screened at Venture Christian Church, 16845 Hicks Road, in Los Gatos on May 14 at 6:30 p.m., followed by a panel with Gornick, mental health experts and a local teen. It is recommended for ages 11 and up. For more information and tickets ($5), visit showclix.com/event/angst-hosted-by-fusion-academy-los-gatos/listing. Additional Bay Area screenings are scheduled for May 22 and 23 in Los Altos and Palo Alto. For more information, visit angstmovie.com.
Gornick spoke with Bay Area Parent about the film and her personal connection to the subject matter.
What was your family’s experience with anxiety?
I started seeking help when (my son) was in eighth grade. I realized it was really a crisis when he started having suicidal thoughts in ninth grade. It got to the point where he wasn’t in school and was really isolated.
It was so hard to get support for him. I felt like I was losing my son and it was a race against time before he didn’t want to be on this planet anymore. That’s when I learned I couldn’t do this on my own. In Marin, I found an educational consultant (Jackson Associates) who was instrumental in helping me find what support I could get for my son and what therapeutic options there were.
He went into treatment (at WayPoint) in March 2016 through March 2017. It was at WayPoint that we really learned about his anxiety. It’s always a perfect storm. I was a single mom with a highly sensitive child with a life-threatening peanut allergy. He was developing OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) about anything that could trigger his peanut allergy, and then I got very sick and had to have heart surgery. … I also learned that my own anxiety was getting in the way of my parenting. I had to help him push through the anxiety so he could go to school and ride those waves of being anxious and learn how to be in the present.
The best thing we can do as parents is model our own vulnerability. When we have a bad day, we can teach our kids that it’s OK to not be OK. They’re not alone. There’s not something wrong with them because they don’t have it all together. As a single parent, I felt I had to be strong for my child. We can’t protect them from everything, but what we have to teach them is that we can get through it.
He has been home over a year now and is doing really well.
What do you hope the film accomplishes?
Our hope in making this film is that Angst will help break the stigma of talking about mental health so that people who are struggling are more likely to find the help that they deserve. … We hope everyone will see themselves in the film and be inspired to get themselves help or help support someone who is struggling.
Anxiety is treatable. There is hope. … Anxiety doesn’t kill, but the stigma around it does.
Are there warning signs parents should look for?
When you have your child start to isolate from things they used to love and enjoy, when you see them not able to do those things or start to withdraw, it’s probably good to get it checked out. There are things they can do to calm their stress early on and to learn to talk about their emotional wellbeing, and then they are less likely to develop an anxiety disorder.
Also look for stomachaches, headaches, saying they’re not able to go to school, seeming like they’re not willing to see friends. Another big sign is … misbehaving in school and not doing well. Those could really be signs of an anxiety that is showing itself externally.
If you think your child has anxiety issues, where can you go for help?
Angstmovie.com/resources is a great place to start. … We have a strong resource guide on our website where people can get information and look for therapists by zip code. As a parent, I couldn’t find that one place to get help, so we created what I was looking for as a parent.
Teens often say, “What if I can’t talk to my parents?’ and parents say, “What if I know my child needs help but they won’t talk with me?” A great place for both of them to start is with a teacher or school counselor. An educational consultant can also help.
Go online and find a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy or exposure therapy. There are also lots of online therapy resources right now and kids can Skype with a therapist. Even though anxiety is on the rise, we now have more resources.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.