PARK CITY — This resort town may be unique to Utah for its affluence, but it's like many other communities in the state and around the country when it comes to families, schools and community leaders looking for ways address teen anxiety and its devastating consequences.
On Tuesday, about 50 people — including teens and parents — met at the Park City Library for a free screening of the IndieFlix documentary "Angst" and to participate in a panel discussion.
“We wanted to show the film in a community like this to start a discussion and break the stigma so people can find the help and support they deserve,” said the film's producer Karin Gornick.
The event was organized by the Deseret News as part of six-month initiative of in-depth reporting, research, analysis and events to help Utahns address teen anxiety. A second screening of "Angst" will take place Wednesday in Herriman, at Fort Herriman Middle School, 14058 Mirabella Drive, at 6:30 p.m.
The idea for the movie came to Gornick when she struggled to find help for her son who had anxiety. Jenny Howe, an advising therapist to the movie who also appears throughout the documentary, became both Gornick's and her son’s therapist as they both worked through their anxieties. The film came out of their collaboration and desire for discussion on the topic.
“The kids are asking for us to talk about this,” Howe said. “Our kids teach us we need to be human and present with them.”
Diversity of anxiety
The film showcased a diversity of teens and children who described their challenges of identifying and coping with anxiety. With a variety of age ranges, genders, races, backgrounds and individual struggles, the featured subjects encouraged the theme that “anxiety doesn’t discriminate” and has varied experiences.
Through the experiences of the youth, their parents and therapists, the nearly hour-long documentary explored the causes of anxiety and effective treatments. Gornick said the film intentionally didn't address medication to avoid alienating those who don't have resources for medication, but she noted that medication can be necessary in treating certain people.
In asking questions to panelists following the film, Rachel Elliott, 16, said it is hard for her to confide in people about her social anxiety. Howe challenged her to just talk to one person, no matter how hard that is.
Victoria Weser, 17, and her friend Emma Davidson, 16, came with Elliott and their LDS Young Women’s group from Provo to Park City for the event.
Davidson said while she doesn’t have an anxiety disorder she appreciated the discussion as it helped her understand the people in her life who struggle with anxiety.
“I actually just texted my friends about the movie and let them know I’m here for them,” Davidson said.
Weser also said she wants to talk about this with her parents, and that it has helped her better understand some of her friends.
Challenging your fears
In the panel discussion moderated by Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson, Gornick, Howe and local activist and videographer Collin Kartchner discussed how to break the stigma of anxiety, especially between parents and children and teens-to-teens.
“In Utah, there is a tradition of putting on a mask for others, where we feel our culture and religion are so intertwined here and it’s hard to separate the two,” said Howe, a psychologist whose practice in based in Utah.
Social media also plays a role, according to Kartchner, who started a #SavetheKids social media campaign to spread awareness of how social media is contributing to teen anxiety, depression and suicide_._ He described meeting teens, through his travels to speak at schools and other groups, with no formal history of mental illness end up struggling with anxiety when it relates to involvement and separation from social media or technology.
“Kids grow up thinking they can’t show the world anything but perfect,” he said. Urging adults to validate their children's struggles, Kartchner urged parents to validate their children's struggles and to emphasize “it is OK to not be OK, it is fine to struggle.”
Howe agreed, counseling parents to show their own vulnerabilities to the pressures they face everyday, along with modeling “the good stuff,” to teach children healthy habits.
From Park City to nationwide
In September 2016, two 13-year-old Treasure Mountain Junior High boys overdosed on synthetic drugs within 48 hours. Their deaths were a wake up call to the community, according to Mary Christa Smith, youth prevention coordinator for the Summit County Mental Health Alliance.
“We realized we had a community-wide problem,” she said.
In a concerted effort to combat anxiety, depression and substance abuse in the area, the number of people of all ages seeking mental health treatment has increased 86 percent from 2016 to 2018, said Aaron Newman, mental health and substance abuse coordinator at the Summit County Health Department.
“This is a positive sign to the work we are doing,” he said, attributing the rise to greater awareness and addressing the stigma of mental health.
Part of the success has been adopting the national “Communities that Care” model in Park City. Communities that Care is an evidence-based, five-stage process that guides communities to support their youth by encouraging positive behavior and preventing negative behaviors. Smith said that the alliance has teamed with the non-profit Connect Summit County to destigmatize mental illness through events, encouraging conversations and linking people with mental health professionals and programs.
Park City schools have also been enlisted in the effort. Ben Belnap, assistant superintendent of Student Wellness at the Park City School District, said a specialized counselor at Park City High School was hired for students who need to speak about their mental health struggles and school stressors as well as training teachers to identify mental illness early on.
Belnap, a psychologist, said his position was created to better serve students in response to the 2016 deaths of Ryan Ainsworth and Grant Sever.
The most significant achievement in the effort to address teen anxiety in the community has been the students opening up the conversation about mental illness, according to Smith.
Connect Summit County, the non-profit founded and directed by a board of community members who have had personal experience with mental illness, has worked with students to gain funding for events, speakers and even bracelets that have an emergency number and an encouraging message on them. Students have formed clubs and “safe spaces” to have a discussion about anxiety and depression with their peers.
“Don’t wait for a tragedy to happen in your community. There are people in every community across the country that struggles,” she said. “This is a nationwide challenge, not just a Park City challenge.”