“What is causing the epidemic of anxiety and depression in teens, and how can we help our students?”

These were the key questions on my mind as I flew toward the west coast with a team of six colleagues from Lakeland Christian School. We arrived in San Francisco for the Learning and the Brain conference called “Educating Anxious Brains” looking for understanding and practical ways to help our students and their families walk a difficult road. 

(L-R) Geoff Stabler, Keith Overholt, Kelly Green, Chasity Branham, 

Jennifer Canady, Kelly Layne, Beth Dickman

The issue of adolescent mental health is a growing crisis. The world has changed significantly in the decades I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve had a front row seat to watch its dramatic impact on teens. I started my teaching career twenty-five years ago, and will complete my fourteenth year at LCS in 2020 working with eleven to eighteen-year-olds. The experts I heard at the conference opened my eyes wider– the data shows that the problem is actually worse than I knew. 

The following thoughts are not my own – they come from dozens of the world’s leading experts in adolescent mental health that I heard at the conference. They are in many cases over-simplified, but I’ve included some links to additional information and explanation where appropriate. I am not a physician or a mental health professional, but I do know young people, and I care deeply about their well-being.

The problem is not just stress

“We are trained to think stress is bad—it is not. Stress is the most vital process we have. It is there to protect you.” Daniela Kaufer, Ph.D. UC Berkeley

The feeling of stress is a physiological response to fear or “a perceived lack of control” (Harris, 2020).  The “fight or flight” mechanism that God designed to be protective causes cortisol to be secreted throughout the body. The key is how fast cortisol shuts down after a stressful event–it’s healthy and positive to experience stress and then return to set point fairly quickly. Some people are more impacted by cortisol than others, so the right amount of stress is highly individualized. 

The real problem is the development of toxic stress, which happens when the body doesn’t have time between the stressors to clear the cortisol. There are critical periods where the brain is more susceptible to impact– adolescence is one. Stress becomes damaging when the circuits designed to protect us are activated too frequently. It is toxic stress that frequently leads to anxiety and depression.

What turns down the stress response?

Much of what can dial down stress is simple, common-sense advice that is consistent with a Biblical world and life view–it’s not rocket science.  That said, sometimes common-sense approaches aren’t enough, and a child needs to be seen by a licensed mental health counselor and/or a physician. 

Here are some of the research-based strategies for preventing toxic stress that were highlighted by the experts we heard:

  • Understand ACEs– The term ACEs is an acronym for “Adverse childhood experiences”. Only three percent of kids with no ACEs have learning or behavior problems. Children with 4 or more ACEs have a 50% greater risk of developing learning and behavior issues. ACEs do not mean that a person is irrevocably damaged, but we do need to acknowledge the role of trauma in their lives. It’s important to learn what help can look like at school and in our churches
  • Control is a buffer that protects against the stress response. When it is practical, offer a choice.
  • As much as possible, create an environment of predictability. Kids thrive on routine.
  • Seek out social support, community, and connectedness.  Get involved at church. Connect to your neighbors. Host a get-together for your child’s class or just one friend. 
  • Get sleep– about nine hours every night for high schoolers, ten for middle schoolers, and more for younger kids. The negative impact of exhaustion and its role fueling anxiety and depression was the number one most consistent message we heard at the conference. Technology is a major culprit—placing a family  charging station in the kitchen or other public area of the home and not allowing technology in bedrooms, especially at night, is a good start.
  • Delay giving kids a phone as long as you possibly can. According to the data, social media and over-use of technology is a significant driver of anxiety.
  • Do everything in your power to create a quiet and peaceful home. 
  • Reduce overstimulation by limiting the things that amp up dopamine–social media, caffeine, and junk food to start.
  • Let kids know that you see them, know them, understand them, and love them. 

Want to hear more? 

We will be hosting a series of morning workshops for parents called “Lessons from the Learning and the Brain”.  You are cordially invited to join us in the RISE Institute at LCS for:

Coffee and a light breakfast at 7:20 am 

Program from 7:30-8:15 am 

  • March 4:  Led by Jennifer Canady  “The Science of Stress: Why Kids Do What They Do
  • March 11: Led by Geoff Stabler- “Three Core Skills for the Digital Age”
  • March 18: Led by Chasity Branham and Beth Dickman: “Bend, Don’t Break”
  • Stay tuned for more events TBD after Spring Break

There is no charge for the events, but please register to attend. 

It’s our joy to walk with our families through the fun parts of raising kids as well as the challenging bits.  We look forward to connecting with you about the critical issue of protecting kids from toxic stress and encouraging resilience.