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High school high anxiety

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For Alex Dunphy, there was nothing sweet about being 16.

Alex, played by Ariel Winter, is a character on the long-running ABC television comedy “Modern Family.”

In an episode called “Under Pressure” in Season 5, Alex, in her own words, “had a meltdown” at a family party thrown for her 16th birthday.

A birthday is a happy time and 16 is a special birthday, traditionally a coming out party, although in the context of “Modern Family” that could have a double meaning. Alex’s uncle on the show is gay, the son of a closet manufacturer.

Anyway, she blows up while blowing out her candles.

She didn’t get them all and it was noted by a parent — “honey, you missed one…”

As that candle burned brightly, Alex, a straight A, hard-driving student, burned out.

The stressed-out teenager had a stressed-out response.

“I know! I know I missed one! I’m not an idiot…”

And the parent said, “You’re being a little…

“Obstreperous?! Recalcitrant?! Truculent?!” Alex responded.

And the parent said, “I was gonna say cray-cray.”

Cray-cray means “very crazy.”

Alex wasn’t crazy, but she was stressed beyond measure.

In Alex’s mind, she CAN’T miss one of anything, not even a birthday candle. She has to be perfect.

“I really need to focus! There’s a 16-year-old science prodigy studying cancer research at John Hopkins, and what am I doing? Eating cake! Cake, cake cake! I’m eating cake!” she exclaimed.

Clearly, she wasn’t where she wanted to be or thought she should be.

But Alex’s story is far from unique. Being stressed, anxious and even depressed is not something she suffers alone in this world of modern families.

According to a number of studies, teenagers in modern families all across America suffer from anxiety and depression, and an astounding number of the teens, if no one else, have recognized it as a serious issue.

A Pew Research Center poll released in February revealed that 70 percent of 920 teenagers ages of 13-17 polled in the fall of 2018 said anxiety and depression are “major” problems for their peers.

They seemed to be noticing symptoms parents and teachers were missing.

Teens of all stripes have identified the problem, according to the poll.

“Concern about mental health cuts across gender, racial, and socioeconomic lines, with roughly equal shares of teens across demographic groups saying it is a significant issue in their community,” wrote the authors of the report, Juliana Menasce Horowitz and Nikki Graf.

So it wouldn’t be a surprise if, when the “Under Pressure” episode aired on Jan. 15, 2014, it hit home with teens.

Some of them, at least.

The hard-drivers like Alex probably wouldn’t have noticed. They wouldn’t be watching TV — they’d be studying.

But maybe it raised awareness among parents about the trials some modern teens face.

Alex’s mom on the show, Claire Dunphy, played by Julie Bowen, attended Alex’s classes at her high school’s open house in the same episode and learned a lot.

It was an exhausting experience for her and a shock when she learned Alex, who took Advanced Placement courses, had six hours of homework a night.

After her “meltdown” Alex decided to see a therapist (after researching, of course) and then met up with her mom after their respective forays into what were new worlds for each.

Alex asked her mom how the open house went and Claire said it was tough.

“Wow, so intense. I had no idea the kind of pressure you’re under. Honey, I was just you for two hours. I could barely hold it together. I don’t know how you don’t have a meltdown every day.”

Alex then clamped on to her mom like a magnet to steel and sobbed.

“I — oh, honey,” Clair said.

They embraced and held on tight.

That scene was not comedy, it was drama, a mom and child bridged a divide.

Alex had come out of that invisible and isolated place, her own little closet in which she had lived for so long.

Some Research

The episode aired about the time researchers were finding out that more and more high school and college students were experiencing greater amounts of stress, anxiety and depression in their lives.

“The American Freshman 50 Year Trends 1966-2015,” published by Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, summarized some of its findings on the subject.

As teenagers have increased their efforts to achieve, their emotional health has suffered, the report said.

“Students’ self-reported high school grades and degree aspirations have increased in concordance with their drive to achieve; however, students’ self-ratings of their emotional health during this same period have dropped precipitously,” the report said.

“Since 1985, entering first-year (college) students have consistently been asked to rate themselves on a variety of traits (compared to the average person their age), and their self-ratings for drive to achieve reached a 30-year high in 2015. During this same period, students’ self-rated mental health and emotional well-being declined.”

In a separate study focusing on 2014 college freshman, CIRP reported a growing percentage of high school seniors took little time to relax and have fun.

They were working instead.

The percentage more than doubled in 27 years.

There was no time for birthday parties, sweet 16 or not.

“Between 1987 and 2014, students who party less than an hour a week increased from 24.3 percent to 61.4 percent, with 41.3 percent reporting they did not party at all,” the report said.

And the percentage of those who spent a relatively significant amount of time partying dropped like a rock.

“Over the same time frame, students who report partying six hours or more per week declined from 34.5 percent to 8.6 percent,” the report said.

A story published in the New York Times on Feb. 4, 2015 by Alan Schwarz quoted Kevin Eagan, the main author of the CIRP study, on the reduction in socializing and its relation to high anxiety when young people enter the hallowed halls of higher education.

“Students may be getting the message that they have to take the last year of high school more seriously to get into college, so they’re coming in with greater levels of anxiety,” Eagan said.

The article noted other aspects of the survey.

“(It) found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently ‘felt depressed’ during the past year, (their senior year in high school), a significant rise over the 6.1 percent reported five years ago,” it reported. “Those who ‘felt overwhelmed’ by schoolwork and other commitments rose to 34.6 percent from 27.1 percent.”

Overwhelmed is surely what Alex felt.

An Attleboro Alex

Bottom line: there are Alexes in schools all over America.

Attleboro is no different.

Ally Beard graduated from Attleboro High School in 2017. She was the class salutatorian.

She’s 20 now and in the fall will enter her junior year at Harvard University.

It’s a place requiring high intelligence and hard work.

It’s just the sort of place on which Alex Dunphy had her sights set.

Ally didn’t necessarily have her sights set on Harvard, she said. But she knew she wanted to go to a good school and that she’d have to work hard to get there.

In that sense she was much like Alex.

She didn’t see the “Modern Family” episode on Alex’s meltdown, but she’s lived it.

“I haven’t seen that episode, but I’ve seen it in real life,” she said in a phone interview from Cambridge, where she’s an intern this summer in a startup nonprofit called Ignite Mental Health: Transform Mental Health on College Campuses.

“I’ve seen it with myself and some of my friends,” she said. “It does not seem far-fetched.”

Her personal, hidden mental burdens would cause her own “meltdowns.”

Sometimes they happened in school.

“There were times I would just get overwhelmed and leave the classroom for no reason at all,” Ally said of her high school years. “It was something I couldn’t explain.”

There were other times when simple routine decisions about what to wear became unsolvable problems. The question would gnaw at her well into the night.

“I would lose sleep over it,” she said.

While at AHS, Ally was straight-A student, a real-life reflection of Alex.

She took eight, yes eight, Advanced Placement courses, which are very much like college courses. They were hard and took extra work.

But her anxiety and depression didn’t come from schoolwork itself, because in some ways schoolwork provided relief from the general anxiety with which she was afflicted.

She knew what she had to do to succeed in her coursework and she did it, no matter how much work it took, and that provided some relief.

“It was one aspect of my life I could control,” she said.

But the pressures of school certainly exacerbated the anxiety she felt.

And there were times school had nothing to do with it.

Ally said she could be hanging out with her brother on a sunny Saturday and still be oppressed with worry.

“It wasn’t all school-related,” she said.

And the pressure to succeed didn’t come from her parents or anywhere outside.

It was internal, much as it was with Alex, who told her therapist, “I’ve been like this as long as I can remember.”

However, the heavy academic load provided fertile soil in which her anxiety could rage.

And that didn’t go unnoticed.

A good friend took her aside one day and revealed that she was being treated for anxiety.

She said she saw her symptoms in Ally.

Ally described herself as being “naïve” about mental illness when she was in high school.

She had little knowledge of it. It was not something that entered her mind as she struggled from day to day.

“It totally surprised me and it made me reflect on myself,” she said of her friend’s concern.

She thought what she experienced was what everyone experienced, but her friend helped her to see maybe that wasn’t so, a revelation for which Ally said she’ll always be grateful.

And she asked the questions she had to ask.

“Maybe the level of stress I’m experiencing isn’t the norm for everyone,” she remembered thinking.

That led to the next question.

“Is this the mood I want to be in as a constant, or do I want to be happier?”

Her answer was clear.

“I’m not as happy as I could be and I want to try to change,” she remembered thinking.

And so like Alex, she decided she wanted to see a therapist.

Her parents, Eric and Susan Beard, both of Attleboro backed her on the plan.

And the decision was good for all.

“I was very fortunate in that my parents were extremely supportive when I decided I wanted to see a therapist,” she said. “Just like I was naïve about the subject, I think my parents were, too.”

It took a few tries, but she finally found one with whom she felt comfortable and began a journey toward better mental health.

That’s where she is today, in better mental health.

Ally learned a lot about herself and how the mind works and how to fight off anxiety.

At first she saw a therapist once a week and as she got better, reduced it to every other week.

The therapy was worth every penny.

“It helped me see things from a more grounded perspective,” she said.

She sees a therapist at Harvard maybe once a month or so.

Ally is studying psychology at Harvard, which may or may not lead to a career in the field. But in an important way she’s already working in the field.

While at Attleboro High, her Advanced Placement biology teacher, Christine Ravesi-Weinstein, would sometimes bring her personal life story into the classroom to illustrate points.

She would talk about her own struggles with anxiety and depression to illustrate how certain medications could be used to help those conditions and how they affected the body’s biochemistry.

Ally said she reached out to her teacher and thanked her for sharing that information because it made her feel less alone.

That created a bond between teacher and student and the teacher became a mentor in Ally’s battle.

And each supported the other in their fights.

After Ally graduated the two kept in touch and discovered that running had a mitigating effect on their anxiety.

“It’s such a simple thing” Ally said. “If we can do this to help us feel better, I’m sure other people can do it to help them feel better.”

That’s part of the message the duo wants to spread.

Exercise causes the body to release endorphins which make makes people feel better, it’s often known as a “runners high.”

It’s not a cure, but it’s a weapon along with therapy.

As a result, the two women founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating awareness about the issues of anxiety and depression and eliminating the stigma that sometimes comes with mental illness.

Its known as Running From Anxiety.

On Sept. 14, they’ll hold their second 5K race to support the cause. The race is held in association with Attleboro Farmers Market.

The first race drew 300 participants and created enough cash to fund the organization’s first scholarship to a student who suffered from anxiety. The organization also sponsored a youth softball team with some of the money.

The motto of Running From Anxiety is, “Think. Run. Fight.”

Meanwhile, Ravesi-Weinstein is writing a book on the subject which, along with Running From Anxiety, she hopes will help bring more attention to the problem so maybe fewer teenagers under pressure will have to go through meltdowns.

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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