It has been said that a great crying scene can make or break a movie. If so, “Anxious Nation,” writer-director Vanessa Roth’s documentary feature exploring anxiety and kids, delivers in spades. It’s real and wrenching and it’s likely to make this film hit home, literally.
Co-directed, produced and written with New York Times bestselling author Laura Morton with executive producer Kathy Ireland, “Anxious Nation” implores parents to address their children’s mental health concerns with the same urgency that they do their physical health. Morton is also featured in the film with her adolescent daughter Sevey, who suffers from anxiety.
Morton uses her family’s personal experience with mental illness to explore some intimate–and downright vulnerable–spaces. We watch families cringe and cower when faced with what one of the psychologists in the film refer to as “the cult leader,” her nickname for the kind of anxiety that runs the show in so many homes.
We watch another teen’s mom make the bed with the kind of obsessive, fine-tuned folds that she hopes will help hold her daughter’s anxiety at bay through the night. We see another parent peering into her husband’s closet and pointing out how the hangers are all meticulously spaced apart as an illustration of the kind of generational predispositions that have gone untreated and snowballed into this century’s fast-growing national crisis of mental health disorders.
“If a parent hasn’t coped with their own mental health concerns it makes it very difficult for them to try and address a child’s concerns,” said Dr. Kenya Hameed, one of the mental health experts in the film. “Kids are always going to need you and when you don’t have the resources to just be present and to kind of manage your own experiences and your own thoughts, it makes it extremely difficult to care for somebody else.”
The film points out that parents, on average, wait two-to eight years to seek help for their child from a mental health professional.
And while the first part of the film introduces the viewer to parents and therapists and loads of data about mental illness, it is the sobs and the
voices of the young people whose lives are being undermined by crippling fear, warped body image, nervous tics, melt-downs and panic attacks that give the most powerful testimony.
“Anxiety hurts my bones,” a pre-teen Sevey says in a bit of archival family footage. “It feels like a little piece of my heart rips off.”
The film goes on to examine some of the causes of anxiety: genetics, the impact of social media; the pain of racial disparity and, of course, the isolation of the pandemic.
Hearing from the suffering children is powerful. Though they speak with the assurance of those who have benefited from years of therapy, it can be a little unnerving to see them share so openly because of the shroud of shame that has cloaked mental illness. And that gets to the central
point of the film: it’s past time that that shroud is lifted.
“There has been so much shame around any sort of mental ill-health that families have typically suppressed it,” said Dr. Shefali Tsabary, author of “The Conscious Parent.”
Between interviews with experts and shots of young people moving through their days, the film features art from children and young adults from around the world who have struggled with anxiety disorders that helps convey the chaos and pain they experience.
It comes as a relief when Roth and Morton, in the last part of the film, addresses solutions that include better mental health care delivery systems in schools and communities.
“We have to help parents and the public recognize how real, common and treatable these disorders are,” Dr. Harold s. Koplewicz, founder of the Child Mind Institute.
It does help to hear young people, in their own words, explain how they’ve taught themselves how to regulate their emotions through breathing techniques and body awareness, medication, exercise, music and, most of all, radical acceptance.
Even if we are not in a family with “one in every three” kids in the United States who are suffering from generalized anxiety, we can all learn something from these young people’s resilience. The film closes out with ways parents can reach out for help, including a phone number for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 and a text option at Mental Health America at 741741.
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