SHERIDAN — Area mental health professionals agree that students are being treated for anxiety related issues more frequently than ever before, but there may be a variety of factors contributing to that rise.
“I don’t have any statistics, but I think if you were to bring together our mental health therapists all of them would agree that there does seem to be a steady rise of mental health concerns related to anxiety, particularly in our younger patients,” said John Olenyik, County Manager for Northern Wyoming Mental Health and master level therapist licensed in Wyoming. “When you talk about anxiety disorder it is a pretty big field and it has lots of parts in it so we have to focus and figure out what’s going on.”
Manifestations of anxiety vary drastically, but some students experience social anxiety and struggle when in a crowd and others may have panic attacks, or sudden feelings of being overwhelmed.
Sheridan High School guidance counselor Mike Swan said often the earliest manifestation of an issue is reflected in the student’s attendance.
“Part of it is they have a hard time getting to school and the issue there for the students I’ve talked to is the large number of people who are in the building,” Swan said. “There is a large range in anxiety where I can get anxious before I take a test or nervous when I have to talk in front of someone, to where it is debilitating to even get up and out of bed sometimes.”
As students miss school, the issue compounds itself, Swan said. Sometimes the attention the student receives upon returning is overwhelming, and almost always the absenteeism will lead to being behind in school work.
Though not all students have debilitating levels of anxiety, the issue is more wide spread than some may think.
Research has shown that up to 10 percent of today’s students are experiencing some sort of anxiety, and with more than 900 students at SHS alone that is a lot of stress. Members of the Sheridan County School District 2 Graduation Counts committee have even been looking at rising anxiety levels as an issue affecting graduation rates.
Though the rising rates are clear, the driving factor behind them is not.
“I thought maybe they are experiencing more pressure due to higher standards or over scheduling, but I’m not seeing that; the students are telling me that is not the problem,” Swan said. “I think the reason it’s becoming more and more present is because the mental health agencies have done a good job of reducing the stigma so students are more inclined to bring it up and the parents have done a good job of doing something about it.”
As awareness and discussion increases, the number of students who are seeking advanced inpatient care has risen as well, Swan added.
But Olenyik believes that whether the student is acknowledging it or not, mounting pressures of modern times are taking their toll.
“The stress and the demands placed on our young people these days is certainly increasing and as a result the amount of anxiety is also rising,” Olenyik said.
Regardless of what is causing it, the professionals are focusing on what can be done to resolve it.
Swan said the process will start by talking to the parents, sharing with them what is seen at school and that it may be wise to see a mental health professional at some point. Only short-term solutions-based care is offered by the school counselors, Swan added, so while they do not make specific care recommendations or referrals, they will almost always recommend that the parents speak to someone — their child’s pediatrician at minimum. After that, it is up to the parent’s prerogative.
“I think the more involved parents are, the more they are informed, the more they can help their child,” Swan said, adding that parents can try to talk to the student, help them with their coping strategies, be involved in the whole process, visit with a pediatrician and see what can be done.
One option for care is to have NWMH therapists visit the student for in-school treatment, which Olenyik said they actually prefer over the student making office visits.
While diagnosing the issue before problematic symptoms such as attendance manifest can be difficult, Olenyik said the on-set is not often overnight and there are things parents can watch for.
“When looking for early signs, I would be concerned with a child who moving into adolescents and puberty has up until that point been a very happy go lucky and very social child all of a sudden withdrawing, complaining of headaches, complaining of stomach aches, not wanting to go to school, those are the kinds of markers,” Olenyik said. “That would make me concerned about what might be happening that is causing this.”
For a student’s perspective on mounting pressures in high school, see today’s Youth page, C3.