Children and teenagers are expressing unprecedented levels of anxiety and many experts believe there is currently a crisis of anxiety in the United States. If that is true, what can adults — who may also be managing anxiety — do to help young people?
While many experts believe social media and news outlets play a role, we have to accept that these things are here to stay — so what is our next step? Join us as Laura Morton and Joan Lunden explain what they discovered working on the new documentary “Anxious Nation.”
For information on where to view “Anxious Nation,” visit anxiousnation.com
Laura Morton has been involved in the entertainment industry for more than 25 years as a bestselling author, producer, speaker and entrepreneur.
She is the founder of Lasega Films and the soon to be launched Anxious Nation Network (ANN).
Morton has written over 60 books and a staggering 21 New York Times bestsellers, with a wide range of celebrities and business leaders, including Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, Susan Lucci, John Maxwell, Jennifer Hudson, Al Roker, Deborah Roberts, Joan Lunden, Marilu Henner, Melissa Etheridge, Katherine Schwarzenegger, Kim Zimmer, Kathy Ireland, Sandra Lee, Danica Patrick, Glenn Stearns, Bob Parsons, and more.
Laura continues to pursue projects of interest that cross publishing, production, and electronic media through her company, including her award-winning documentary film, “Anxious Nation.” Laura frequently speaks to organizations on a variety of topics, mixing humor and emotional storytelling in her dazzling and memorable presentations.
Joan Lunden is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author, television host, and motivational speaker. She has been a trusted voice in American homes for more than 40 years. For nearly two decades, Lunden greeted viewers each morning on “Good Morning America,” making her the longest running female host ever on early morning television.
Lunden is the host of the PBS television series, “Second Opinion with Joan Lunden” and the Washington Post Podcast series, “Caring for Tomorrow” on the future of healthcare. Lunden is also the ambassador to the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise for Seniors program which educates individuals over 50 on media literacy, separating fact from fiction online.
In June of 2014, Lunden was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. An eternal optimist, she turned her diagnosis and subsequent cancer treatment into an opportunity to become an advocate to help others. Lunden shared her battle against breast cancer in her book “Had I Known.”
Lunden continues to interact with American’s daily on her website, Joanlunden.com, as well as her social media platforms. Her latest book, “Why Did I Come Into This Room? A Candid Conversation About Aging” is available now.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling in today, we have Laura Morton and Joan Lunden. Laura has written over 50 books and a staggering 21 of them are New York Times best sellers. Joan was the host of Good Morning America for nearly 20 years, giving her the title of longest-running female host ever on early morning television. Her latest book, “Why Did I Come Into This Room? A Candid Conversation About Aging” is available now. Joan, Laura, welcome to the show.
Joan Lunden: Thanks for having us.
Gabe Howard: We’re here today to discuss the new documentary, Anxious Nation. Anxious Nation is directed by Academy Award winner Vanessa Roth, executive produced by Kathy Ireland and co-directed written and produced by Laura. The documentary takes a deep look into the epidemic of anxiety in the United States and how it shows up in our kids’ lives, often having a crippling impact on both children and their families. Laura, I want to ask you, what inspired you to make this documentary?
Laura Morton: Gabe, you know, I’m the mother of an anxious child. And it was around 2018 when I was sitting in my office feeling incredibly defeated because I felt like I was failing my daughter. Whatever we were doing, it just did not seem to be working. And she wasn’t getting better. And, you know, for a long time I couldn’t even get an answer about what was going on with her. So, I put a post on Facebook. I mean, I just wrote kids and anxiety, who’s dealing with it? And I got a lot of responses. I got a lot of short responses on Facebook. I am, we are. My granddaughter is. But the private messages that started coming in were the ones that really rocked me because they came from people that I knew, people that I knew well, and we had never talked about what was going on in their homes any more than I had talked about what was going on in my home. And, I wanted to know are we more anxious or are we just more aware of it? I wanted to know why this was happening and I really wanted to understand what we could do about it.
Gabe Howard: I hear all the time that if we just kept kids off social media and turned off the 24/7 news cycle, that this whole problem would just resolve itself. Joan, as someone who hosted the news, as a journalist, what are your thoughts on that?
Joan Lunden: Well, I really do feel that the addiction or the obsession with social media has really had a great deal to do with the increase in anxiety and sadness and depression. And look, I’m sure that the news plays a big part in it. The fear over school shootings, I mean, just the national political discourse going on today has got to also impact them. But I really feel that this obsession with the phone, which they almost just can’t let go of and I remember going to a store like eight minutes from my house and my daughter kept snapping pictures of herself and she’d hold the phone all these different places. And I said, why did you just take 12 pictures of yourself in this short ride? She said, Mom, I’m on Snapchat. Like, what don’t you get about snap and chat? So, if she has to take a photograph of herself every time she says hello or a follow up statement, I mean, teenage girls are just inherently worried about how they look, how other people think they look. And, you know, this just exacerbates it. And now they’ve got TikTok. And I know a lot of people love TikTok, but I find it amazing for us to be able to grasp the concept that China who produced it, banned it because they say it’s children’s opium. And now our kids are on it. I mean, I worry because I just see them all the time on this and it allows them to see what other people are doing that they’re not invited to it.
Joan Lunden: And I think parents, it’s hard to say no, Gabe. I mean, it’s the hardest thing as a parent to say, no, you can’t do that. And to put a rule into place, it’s easier to say yes. And especially with working parents and kids will wear you down until you finally say okay, because of course, they say everybody else can, which is that phrase that’s so untrue. But we give in. And so, you’ve got this lax parenting. You’ve got the ease of handing the kid an iPad and, you know, then they don’t they don’t come to you. And by the way, if they’re in their rooms, on their phones for hours after school, it kind of feels and this isn’t a cop out, but I’m just going to say, as a parent, it feels like they don’t need you as much. They’re not coming to you. They’re not asking you anything. So, like, all that builds up to a point where right now I think that kids, you know, they go to their rooms, they order whatever food that they want on Uber Eats or DoorDash. You don’t even know that they were hungry, let alone that they had food come to the door and they went and got it. It’s just a complete new independent way of living and kids actually need the guidelines.
Gabe Howard: There’s a part of me that completely agrees with you because I think of my own childhood. Right? When I was hungry, I did have to talk to Mom, and this provided an avenue for my mother to have a reason to talk with me. A reason to interact with me. A reason even just to, you know, while it was microwaving that that that took two minutes. But my mother was amazing at getting information out of me in two minutes while, you know, the hot pocket was heating up. And you’re right that that does seem to be missing in modern homes and in modern home life. But the devil’s advocate in me wants to say, so do we really believe that if we just took all the iPads away from children, that anxiety would decrease tomorrow?
Laura Morton: I think that social media and our devices are more of a symptom than a cause. I think they’re a symptom of much larger issues like social isolation, loneliness, disconnection. We were talking earlier about it takes a village. We were meant to be a village. But I don’t think it’s realistic to think that devices are going anywhere. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that the kids are going to put their phones down. They have to. They’re on their screens all day long with school now. We were never on our screens for school. So the reality is this is the reality. The question is. Can we do better? I actually think that the social media companies, right, that the Facebooks and the Instagrams and the TikToks and Snapchat, I think they need to be held accountable.
Joan Lunden: And I agree with you that social media, if they were, had enough brilliant minds to come up with how to make social media, they should have the equivalent of brilliance within their company to figure out how to tamp down some of the volatile language
Gabe Howard: Frankly, it’s always been fascinating to me that social media platforms can use my browsing history to show me ads for things that I might want to buy. And honestly, they’re incredibly accurate. But then those same companies claim to be powerless when it comes to monitoring other areas of their platforms. Laura, you mentioned that your daughter’s struggle with anxiety was the impetus for your documentary Anxious Nation. Can you tell us how anxiety has impacted your daughter and your home life?
Laura Morton: Thank you for asking. Yeah. So anxiety is a shapeshifter in our home. So what made my daughter anxious yesterday might not be the thing that triggers her today. And, you know, like, currently we’re having a lot of issues with my daughter needing to come home from school during the day. She’s just having, you know, bouts of anxiety that she can’t make it through the day of school. And, you know, the schools are so ill-equipped to manage the demand of what’s happening in in our school system, what’s happening with our youth. And it’s and I see it every day. Parents are overwhelmed. They’re exasperated. We don’t know what to do. We think we’re coming at this from a place of love. We want to solve the problem. We want to make things better. But in the process of doing that, in many ways, we’re actually pouring a little fuel on the fire. We’re making things worse. And so, in my daughter’s case, I’ve been dealing with her anxiety, which I didn’t know was anxiety, since she was three years old. It wasn’t until she was ten that somebody said to me, this is anxiety. So, we went through seven years of me trying to figure out what is going on. And I think so many parents, on average, it takes parents 2 to 8 years to seek help. I find that statistic staggering because we say this in the film. If you had a rash, you’d be at CVS getting cortisone. And if the rash didn’t go away in a week, you’d be in a dermatologist office. And we don’t treat mental health the same way that we treat physical health.
Gabe Howard: Yeah, there’s definitely been a difference in the way that we treat mental health issues versus other health issues, especially in our children. But that’s been happening for a really long time. I think back to my own childhood and I clearly had the symptoms of anxiety and bipolar disorder starting in my really early teens, maybe early as 11 or 12. But I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult, I was 26 years old. And my parents were absolutely loving and engaged parents, but they just didn’t look at me and see mental illness. They assigned the symptoms of mental illness to the difficulty of puberty, boys will be boys, generalized teenage angst and so on and so on and so on.
Joan Lunden: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Now, I’m 46 now, so I can honestly say parents have been dismissive of their children’s mental health issues long before we had social media.
Laura Morton: Yes.
Gabe Howard: So, this isn’t really new.
Laura Morton: It’s not new. That’s the thing that I learned on this journey, is that this isn’t new. In fact, you just named all of the things we call it, right? And so, you know, behavioral issues, that’s just teenage girls, you know, And it’s inconvenient at the end of the day. Having a kid who has high anxiety is inconvenient. I need to get to work. I can’t deal with this today. I you know, you need to get to school. These are things that I think happen in many, many, many homes. And so, what happens is, in the film, in Anxious Nation, we talk a lot about anxiety being like a cult leader in the home and the cult leader dictates what’s going to happen when and if you are listening to the cult leader, then everything is fine and the cult leader being anxiety. But if you start to like take the cult leader on, that’s when you have real problems because everybody can live, but to Joan’s earlier point, Joan, when you said it’s sometimes it’s just easier to say yes than no. Right?
Joan Lunden: Mm-hmm.
Laura Morton: And that’s exactly what happens with parents. They get they’re exhausted. They’re exasperated. They don’t know what they’re dealing with. They have things they need to do. They have a Zoom call. They have, you know, you name it. Right. And so, they just go, fine, yes, done. And then the anxiety wins.
Joan Lunden: You know I learned by watching Anxious Nation that I’m doing the disorder. My husband and I do the disorder because we’ll do anything and we’ll change where we’re going to go to dinner. We’ll change whatever. We’ve changed our way of talking to our daughter in order to not have her break down in her anxiety. And by doing that, we are doing the disorder. But it’s so hard not to because you can’t rationalize with an anxiety-ridden teenage girl. And if you try to just rationalize them and say, yes, but you shouldn’t feel that way because everyone’s not looking at you in the hall and they’re not all smack talking about you. You can’t get anywhere by doing that.
Joan Lunden: We’ve gone through psychiatrist after psychologist in trying to learn ourselves in how to just have conversation with our daughter so that we try to get through to her without alienating ourselves from her. Because, you know, one thing I’ve learned, we have our vision of how our child grew up. They have their own vision through their anxiety-ridden eyes of how they grew up. And when I sometimes sit and listen to my 18-year-old daughter tell a psychologist what her life was like growing up, you know, mom and dad, they cared more about the other three. I was the one on the outside. I wasn’t as good at sports. It is so totally off the mark from what I consider was the reality that took place in our home.
Gabe Howard: This sort of reminds me a little bit of treatment in psychosis. One of the things that we tell when we’re working with somebody with psychosis is if they say that there is a dragon there, never, ever say that there’s no dragon.
Laura Morton: Yep.
Gabe Howard: Because that person sees the dragon. And if you say there’s no dragon there, they will never trust you again, because who are they going to believe? You or their lying eyes?
Joan Lunden: Exactly.
Gabe Howard: When I was listening to you talk about your daughter’s anxiety and working with kids with anxiety, when you say, hey, calm down, nobody’s talking about you, there’s nothing there, they believe it.
Joan Lunden: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Whether it’s true or not is really irrelevant. Just like in the case of the dragon. Whether there’s a dragon there or not is irrelevant. They see the dragon. You don’t see the dragon. You’re either lying or stupid. Does this apply over here? Should parents just never, ever challenge the anxiety because it turns their kids off? It makes them not want to talk to them because the anxiety, just like the dragon, is very real to them.
Laura Morton: Well, Gabe, I have to tell you, my biggest epiphany from this film was trying to understand what anxiety feels like for my daughter and having empathy for that, because as a parent, I like to Joan’s point, know, get over it, you know, no, this isn’t happening. Understanding that what my daughter is feeling is real and trying to see it through her eyes and allowing her to be who she is and not who I want her to be was my biggest epiphany from making this film. It brought us closer. It gave us the opportunity to understand each other a little bit better. And I will completely confess that when I when I do something that does poke the bear, my daughter will say to me, you made a movie about anxiety and you’re still doing it wrong. So, you know, I’m not perfect. And I think that that pursuit of perfection as a parent is just a losing battle. But we can try to do better. We can try to understand this better and come at it from a different point of view.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing how to help young people with anxiety with Laura Morton and Joan Lunden. We know that the vast majority of parents love their children. What is stopping parents from having more success with this? Why are parents having such trouble helping their kids manage anxiety?
Joan Lunden: For most. For the most part, both parents are working, most households have two working parents. And it’s difficult for parents to be able to deal with all these anxiety issues and to try to get their kids off the social media or off the games. It’s really hard. And then on top of that, the parents are exhausted just from the pace of life today. And then you put on top of all of that, an atmosphere of discourse in the United States. We have a crisis of civility. And as a nation, if we really want to own up to what’s going on, adults are have horrible discourse. Volatile on social media, on their own platforms at each other, now even erupting in their communities, in their know, the PTA meetings. And they’re all screaming at each other and they’ve become so divided and so volatile. And we think this is not going to have an effect on our children? This this volatile atmosphere and this divide that has occurred in the last few years has got to leave our teenagers feeling really vulnerable and scared. And, you know, unfortunately, it just feels like it’s getting worse and it feels like it’s becoming normalized and excused. And the more that happens with the adults in this country, I think that’s just going to exacerbate the problem of teenage unrest, unrest and a feeling of being vulnerable and scared and angst. Yeah. And anxious and oh, by the way. And thus, we are left with an anxious nation.
Gabe Howard: But throughout America’s history, we have had all sorts of periods of political unrest or where people were divided. I’m thinking of extreme examples like the Civil War or the civil rights movement. Given that, why do you think that anxiety is more of an issue now?
Joan Lunden: I don’t want to always go back and blame social media, but.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Joan Lunden: I do think that social media coming into our lives, giving people the ability to say whatever they want to say with anonymity online. And they’re really igniting volatility in society. Then couple that with over the last five, six, seven years, our politicians because in an effort to win and bring along their constituents, they have gotten more and more and more out of line in what they say and in their, their freedom of speech to be able to say caustic and dangerous things out in the public. It’s just raised this feeling that, well, that’s just the way it is today. That’s kind of normal. Well, there’s really nothing normal about what’s going on. We’re all out of control.
Laura Morton: I also want to say that a couple of things. One, look, we’ve had volatility in this country for a long time. I think we’re seeing it on a heightened level for sure. But I think about, you know, the 1960s. I think the other issue here to your question is we do have a generation of anxious parents who never dealt with their own anxiety because, frankly, they either didn’t know what they were dealing with or they didn’t know how to. Right. So, in an effort to not have their kids feel the way they do, they try to fix the problem. Right. They say, you know what? I’ll take care of that for you. You don’t have to learn how to move through something difficult. You know, I think that our experts do talk about the fact that hard things happen in life. That’s life. Right. And it’s how we move through it. You know, people think anxiety is all about what happens, you know, out here, right? Outside. But it really is about how we process what’s happening outside. And so, I think it’s really important to understand that. We have this generation of very, very anxious parents who just don’t want their kids to feel the same way. And in that effort, they’re actually doing more harm than good.
Laura Morton: Yeah. I mean, I don’t disagree with what Joan’s saying about social media. I certainly think that that’s given people a platform. Right. But people are who they are, and that platform allows them. You know, it’s Maya Angelou who said, when people show you who they are, believe them. Right. So, people are who they are. And if they’re going to use that platform to spread ugliness and hate and all of the negativity that we’re seeing in this world, that’s who they are. You know, and Joan, I think you’re 100% right. And if they think that that’s not going to impact their kids, think again.
Gabe Howard: As I’m sitting here thinking about it, I do agree that social media has caused issues. And listen, I’m a podcaster and an influencer. I’ve built my entire career on social media. So, it’s not that I disagree either, but the thing that I keep coming back to is, look, it’s here to stay. There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s sort of
Joan Lunden: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Like saying this day would be beautiful
Laura Morton: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: If it wasn’t raining. Well, I agree with you, but it is raining. So, what’s the plan? How do we move forward? How do we save the picnic, the wedding? And I guess that’s my question, how? Social media is here to stay? How does an individual parent adult move forward? What can we do?
Laura Morton: It’s not I don’t think that I think I think the social media companies have to be held accountable because they know the damage they’re doing. We have all throughout the film, we show statistics that come from Facebook. They come from Meta. They come from Instagram. They come. It is their own internal studies that we use, so they know the damage that they’re doing. They know that an algorithm will take a kid down a rabbit hole. So, if the kid is depressed and they’re watching Tick Tock and they’ll be on a feed that just takes them right down that rabbit hole, it’s designed to do that. I honestly believe that we have to hold the companies accountable. They need to do better. We need to demand better. Any significant change that’s going to come in that arena is going to have to start with people saying no more, and the government isn’t doing it. Right? The government isn’t doing a lot of things when it comes to mental health. Listen, I love and appreciate that the president of the United States had the cast of Ted Lasso show up to the White House this week to talk about mental health. But that was the cast of a TV show with a character who has mental health. Where were the experts? Where were the real families going through this?
Gabe Howard: As someone who lives with bipolar disorder, I’m always fascinated by that. I’m just like, I’m here, I’m right here. I live with panic attacks, anxiety.
Laura Morton: Right.
Gabe Howard: I’m right here. I would love to talk to you. And it’s like, no, what we’ve done is we’ve brought an actor in who portrays somebody with your illness and they’re the experts now.
Laura Morton: And they’re the experts.
Gabe Howard: And I love Ted Lasso. I love Jason Sudeikis, like I feel bad for saying it.
Laura Morton: Me too, me too.
Gabe Howard: But, yeah. Why were they?
Laura Morton: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: What they should do is they should have me come and teach an acting class, right? Because I have panic disorder and anxiety, so therefore I can teach acting. That’s, that’s, that’s clearly the other side of that.
Laura Morton: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: I do understand your point. All joking aside, Laura, before we end, I want to ask, how is your daughter doing now?
Laura Morton: Thank you. You know, we have we it’s a journey and it’s a journey that that we’re on together. So, she has good periods and challenging periods. What she’s done, though, and I’m so proud of her, is that she now knows that she can do something about it. And some days she practices that and some days she doesn’t. But what she is doing, which I’m incredibly proud of her for, is she’s using her voice as a youth advocate. She is she’s working with the Born This Way Foundation as a mental health youth advocate. She is on the UCLA, the UCLA Youth Advocacy Board, and she feels if she can help one other kid because she’s talking about it because she’s being vulnerable, because she’s putting herself out there, that it will be worth going through all of this so that they feel seen and heard and they do not feel alone.
Gabe Howard: Laura, Joan, thank you so much for being here. And to all of our listeners, please check out the new documentary Anxious Nation, which opens theatrically on May 5th in New York and Los Angeles, and will also be available in their virtual cinema at AnxiousNation.com. Finally, towards the middle of May, you can watch Anxious Nation on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which is available on Amazon. But you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe. It is absolutely free and hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show. Tell a friend, a family member, mention it in a support group, post it on social media, send a text message. Because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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