'It's like being in busy traffic': anxiety most prevalent mental health issue in young children

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Up to one in six young Australians are living with an anxiety disorder, and early intervention is crucial to stop them developing into anxious adults.

If you were working in a school, you’d be aware that anxiety is a really significant problem for our children,” said Professor Jennifer Hudson from Macquarie University. “It’s a problem we need to pay attention to.”

Seven per cent of school-aged children are living with an anxiety disorder, according to an Australian Government study, but those working on the ground suspect the real figure is much higher as not all anxiety disorders were included in that study.

Another study, from UNSW and Beyond Blue, stated that one in six young Australians suffer from an anxiety condition, and as many as 45 per cent of Year 12 students reported high levels of anxiety.

“It’s hard to know whether it’s increasing. Teachers and parents are definitely reporting more of a problem,” said Dr Hudson.

A key issue is understanding the difference between normal feelings of worry or anxiety, or whether it constitutes disordered behaviour that requires help.

“It’s a really difficult decision to make,” Dr Hudson said. “To me, it’s when it impacts on their life; when they can’t switch off. When they’re missing out on activities that other children are experiencing, that’s when it’s important to seek help.”

Willa, aged eight, began experiencing severe separation anxiety at the age of four. The symptoms became progressively worse as over years.

 “We thought it was part of kids starting school,” said her mother, Sonja. “It got to the point where she was running out of the classroom to follow me and chase me down the street.”

“I wouldn’t let go of my mum until the principal got involved,” said Willa. “It was really embarrassing because everyone could see me screaming for mum in front of the whole school.”

Elizabeth also suffered from acute anxiety from the age of six, mainly centered on sleep and bedtime. Her mother, Susan, recalls it taking around two hours to get her to sleep at night.

“She was genuinely having panic attacks,” Susan said. “She was hysterical.”

“I remember Mum’s reaction being, ‘you need to do this yourself,” said Elizabeth. “I never understood. I would just say, ‘you need to stay with me’.”

After a few years, Elizabeth was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

“When they said it was anxiety, it was just the acknowledgement that there was a problem; that there were things I could change, and ways I could help her change.”

Lynn Jenkins, a clinical psychologist, works with children who have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. She stresses the importance of early intervention.

“As we get older, our thoughts tend to become entrenched, and the roots grow stronger and more dug in,” she said. “With children it’s easier because they haven’t got all that stuff dug in.”

Dr Hudson also emphasises early diagnosis and treatment, and teaching children to face their fears in a controlled environment.

 “If parents are modeling anxiety that’s one way it can transmit,” she said. “And if parents are protective if children are anxious and inhibited, and rush in, it helps to maintain the anxiety in the long run.”

“If they gradually face the situations they’ve been avoiding, they learn, you know what, this isn’t as scary as I thought. Maybe I can handle it.”

Willa, now eight, first saw a counselor at the end of kindergarten, leading to a diagnosis and treatment.

“When I do my breathing exercises, I feel brave enough to ask someone to ask someone to stay with me,” said Willa. “It really helps.”

Willa made a video to educate other children about her condition.

“I realised that once I had anxiety I knew how it felt, and I understand that other children have it,” she said.

Elizabeth, now fifteen, has also learned to manage her anxiety.

“Every time I do something that makes me anxious, but I do it anyway, it gives me a bit more confidence. I think, I did that – I thought I couldn’t, but I did.”

“It’s important for people like me to come out, speak about it, to normalise issues like these - to give people confidence to get help and deal with it.”

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