I hadn’t really thought about talking to my teenager about mental illness until the one day it became unavoidable.
My son’s close friend was diagnosed with severe social anxiety disorder, and was heading to a residential treatment center for a few months. My son was very upset that his friend, let’s call him James, was going away. We knew that James was having some issues at school and getting therapy but I was unaware of how severe the problem was becoming. The boys spent plenty of time together and I thought James and his parents had everything under control.
It turns out that school had become an increasing source of anxiety for James, who struggled with social anxiety so severe that he couldn’t get himself out the door some days. My son told me that James is uncomfortable in group settings, won’t ask teachers for help, can’t speak up in class or when called on, and sometimes won’t even turn in homework for fear of getting bad grades. James also thinks that the teachers will be mad at him if he does any little thing wrong and avoids most other teens as well. James and his parents had been working with the school counselor a lot, and trying to get to the root of the issue together.
When my son let me know that James’ parents were arranging for him to attend the residential treatment center for full-time therapy, he was understandably confused and upset. To him, James was just shy and my son just didn’t understand why his friend just couldn’t make up his mind to “do better.” He was mad at James’ parents for “punishing him by sending him away.”
I was unsure how to comfort him because this was new territory for us. I've spent a lot of time researching and writing about these types of situations, but never has it come up in my own home. I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to talk to my son about mental illness and educate both of us. Most people, teens included, simply don’t understand the details behind a mental illness like social anxiety disorder. I told my son that it was our job as James' friends to increase our knowledge about what he was going through.
I did let my son know that social anxiety is extremely common in our society and that James will definitely not be the last friend or family member he will know with the condition. To help him make sense of what his friend James was going through, we did some research online about mental illness and social anxiety disorder together, sharing what we discovered.
Here are 11 facts we learned together about social anxiety disorder:
- Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States.
- Nearly 40 million people in America suffer from anxiety disorders.
- Only 1/3 of anxiety sufferers will actually seek out and receive professional treatment.
- Teen social anxiety disorder often goes undetected because parents and teachers just think that the teen is shy.
- With treatment, people with social anxiety disorder can lead long and successful lives.
- Early detection and intervention can help prevent long-term impairment.
- There’s no single test to discover if someone has social anxiety disorder, and a true diagnosis involves an evaluation of symptoms by doctors, therapists, family and teachers.
- Treatment of social anxiety disorder in teens includes cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication.
- Teens with social anxiety disorder must learn new coping skills to manage their reactions to different situations.
- Those who suffer from social anxiety disorder are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
- In severe cases, teens with social anxiety disorder are at risk of self-harm or suicide.
After we did our research and talked about mental illness and social anxiety disorder, we both came away much wiser and with more understanding about James’ struggles. My son was able to reduce his anger, confusion and worry about James and formulate a real plan on how he could be a better friend.
I’m happy to report that James is back in traditional school and seems to be doing much better. My son is taking it upon himself to look out for James and make sure he knows he isn’t alone. I’m so proud of my son, and I know that because of his increased understanding of James’ struggles with social anxiety disorder and mental illness, he will be better able to help others who may cross his path.