Opinion: Anxiety is a public health problem

I can perceive the increasing anxiety among my students. Today, they come to the office not only to discuss courses, internships and post-graduation plans, but also to apologize for missed classes and changing behavior due to new doses of medication, personal and family drama, and other stressors. My colleagues and I are receiving more and more training about warning signs, counseling referrals and conducting interventions, alongside the usual degree reports and add/drop slips. K-12 teachers tell me they see this as well, and I also see it in my younger colleagues.

The data show it, too. Anxiety is on the rise. The American Psychiatric Association ran a 1000-respondent poll in 2017, finding that two-thirds of respondents identified themselves as extremely or somewhat anxious — a 36% jump from 2016. These answers were most common among the millennial generation. Health and safety for self and family were the most common concerns. The poll was repeated in 2018 and found another 5% increase. Surveys in other developed countries also show increases.

Why should political scientists be concerned? First, professors are, first and foremost, teachers, and our first responsibility is our students’ well-being. Second, research should explore the rising anxiety levels and our divisive, fear and anger-driven political climate, manifested in figures like former Kansas Secretary of State and current U.S. Senate candidate Kris Kobach. Third, labeling anxiety a public health problem is a public policy issue.

Labeling anxiety as a public health problem would benefit those struggling with it. One feature of American culture — particularly rural culture — is to treat all health problems as resting with the individual and solvable only by the individual. Thus, many people with anxiety wonder if there is something “wrong” with them. Acknowledging the public health aspect lets sufferers know that they are not alone and removes the stigma from seeking help. This is a good start, but we can do more.

K-12 schools, universities and employers may need to consider developing codified procedures for handling the increasing number of claims asserting that classes, assignments, deadlines and work days were missed because of changes in medication. Handling such claims on a case-by-case basis may no longer be feasible. Of course, insurance coverage for mental health is also a policy issue, requiring a balance between data-driven best practices on the one hand and flexibility on the other, since there is no one treatment that works for everybody. Unfortunately, many anxiety sufferers are treated primarily through trial and error, particularly with types and doses of medication. Funding for new research — for example, at the University of Kansas Medical Center and its extensive research facilities — may help us find a better way than just seeing what sticks.

Finally, changes in our culture may be required. Many of my students, for example, see it is a badge of honor to cram in as many courses as possible, as well as to spend long hours at off-campus, part-time jobs, while also intervening to de-escalate family dramas. The inevitable results are high stress and chronic sleep deprivation, which mutually reinforce each other into a toxic spiral. We need to rethink our cultural messages. While achievement is great, within reason, a shift in cultural norms toward balance and self-care is needed, too.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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