Behind the Story: A Journalist’s Lens on Anxiety

Benoit Denizet-Lewis spent a year chronicling the lives of anxious teens, shining new light on a deeply concerning trend

November 30, 2017
black and white comic of a boy with anxiety monsters floating around him

In October, The New York Times Magazine ran a sobering cover story about the rise of anxiety in American teens, and how parents, therapists, and schools are responding. Writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis chronicled the daily battles students faced, the techniques they used to manage their anxiety, and the support they received in and out of the classroom. We asked him to tell us about the relationships he formed, how best to help anxious teens, and what he took away from the experience. 

Was it helpful for these kids to tell their stories and be open about their anxiety? What did it mean to them that you listened, checked in frequently, and brought this part of their lives to light?

This is a great question. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that meeting me and answering my questions — especially at first — triggered anxiety in some of the teens I met. Some said this directly; in other cases, their anxiety was obvious. I spent a lot of time with one anxious teen girl who had attempted suicide a few weeks before I met her, and in the end I decided not to include her in the piece because I worried that she was too fragile emotionally. Though I didn’t plan to use her full name or have her be photographed, I still worried about how she would react to what can be an intense fact-checking process, and to then seeing her story in print.

"Other teens, including Jake and Jillian (the two young people I mainly profile), expressed to me often that they wanted to help other anxious teens, and they saw this as a good opportunity to do that. They were willing to be photographed and tell their stories because they wanted to raise awareness about anxiety."

But other anxious teens seemed to see the value in having someone follow their progress. For some, they saw conversations with me as a kind of “mini exposure” exercise, where they could get through an anxious experience (talking to a journalist) and learn that they could survive it.

Other teens, including Jake and Jillian (the two young people I mainly profile), expressed to me often that they wanted to help other anxious teens, and they saw this as a good opportunity to do that. They were willing to be photographed and tell their stories because they wanted to raise awareness about anxiety. Jake didn’t start that way, but the more I checked in with him and listened to him over the course of a year, the more comfortable he became letting me in — and, eventually, letting the world in.

After spending over a year developing relationships with these students, what are you left with as an overarching takeaway or a set of feelings?

I have lots of complicated takeaways and feelings. But, in a nutshell, I’m worried about the mental health of contemporary youth. I’m not an alarmist, and there are many challenges when comparing mental health across generations, but the combination of what the best data tell us and what teachers and counselors from across the country told me is … scary.

The good news about anxiety specifically, though, is that it’s highly treatable. We just need to do a much better job helping struggling families connect to — and afford — treatment. 

On a personal note, I’m left feeling grateful that I was a 13-year-old in the late 1980s. There was no social media to mess with my head, and my parents let me roam the neighborhood with friends and fall off my bike a lot. It was like Stranger Things, only in San Francisco and with no monsters.

"I’m worried about the mental health of contemporary youth. I’m not an alarmist, and there are many challenges when comparing mental health across generations, but the combination of what the best data tell us and what teachers and counselors from across the country told me is … scary."

What about resilience? Thinking about the supports and services that schools and parents are turning to, are we helping young people cultivate resilience, or diluting it, and are we preparing them to face and overcome challenges in the future?

Schools are obsessed with resilience right now, mostly because they’re shocked at the lack of resilience and basic life skills among so many of their students. There’s likely a smart, effective middle ground, but I don’t get the sense that anyone has completely figured out the formula.

It’s clear that schools — just like parents — are struggling with when to push and when to back off. Many schools are also trying to figure out if there are some common-sense ways they can alleviate stress and anxiety among students, including implementing later school start times and reintroducing arguably the best part of school: recess.

What the experts believe is that schools need to make some structural changes to lessen stress and anxiety, while at the same time not go too far to accommodate anxious students in ways that don’t teach them resiliency skills and actually make anxiety worse in the long run.

As a teacher yourself at Emerson College, have you witnessed a rise of anxiety in college students?

Colleges all over the country are dealing with an increase in anxious students, and Emerson is no exception. I’ve had professor friends at big schools and little schools tell me, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Most feel completely unprepared to help their students. It’s clear that schools need to do more to train teachers and professors.

"I’ve had professor friends at big schools and little schools tell me, 'I’ve never seen anything like this.' Most feel completely unprepared to help their students. It’s clear that schools need to do more to train teachers and professors."

I feel slightly more prepared after having researched this topic and spent so much time with anxious young people. I’m aware of the seriousness of debilitating anxiety in a way I wasn’t before. I’m also aware that letting an anxious young person consistently avoid what scares them only exacerbates anxiety.

You’ve written a lot about vulnerable youth and populations. What draws you to telling these stories, and what is it like to immerse yourself in others’ lives?

Immersing myself inside the lives of people unlike myself is the best part of my job. I’ve spent time with everyone from transgender youth to teen Christians at a summer camp for pro-life activists. I’m particularly interested in writing about people who are disliked, mocked, ignored, vulnerable, or stereotyped. Those groups are typically written about in superficial, knee-jerk ways (their stories often shoe-horned into predictable political narratives), so there’s an opening to write about them with nuance and complexity.

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We’re in a moment where anxiety is running rampant, spreading like an epidemic among adolescents. What can we do? In a series of pieces, we look at how to help teenagers face their fears, build resilience, and grapple with the pressure to achieve — on the road to college and beyond. Read more at What Do Anxious Teens Need?

About the Author

Casey Bayer
Casey Bayer is the senior media relations officer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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