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Alison Heyland, 18, shown at her home in Maine, was part of a group that makes films to raise awareness about depression, anxiety and self-harm Lise Sarfati for TIME

Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright

The first time Faith-Ann Bishop cut herself, she was in eighth grade. It was 2 in the morning, and as her parents slept, she sat on the edge of the tub at her home outside Bangor, Maine, with a metal clip from a pen in her hand. Then she sliced into the soft skin near her ribs. There was blood--and a sense of deep relief. "It makes the world very quiet for a few seconds," says Faith-Ann. "For a while I didn't want to stop, because it was my only coping mechanism. I hadn't learned any other way."

The pain of the superficial wound was a momentary escape from the anxiety she was fighting constantly, about grades, about her future, about relationships, about everything. Many days she felt ill before school. Sometimes she'd throw up, other times she'd stay home. "It was like asking me to climb Mount Everest in high heels," she says.

It would be three years before Faith-Ann, now 20 and a film student in Los Angeles, told her parents about the depth of her distress. She hid the marks on her torso and arms, and hid the sadness she couldn't explain and didn't feel was justified. On paper, she had a good life. She loved her parents and knew they'd be supportive if she asked for help. She just couldn't bear seeing the worry on their faces.

For Faith-Ann, cutting was a secret, compulsive manifestation of the depression and anxiety that she and millions of teenagers in the U.S. are struggling with. Self-harm, which some experts say is on the rise, is perhaps the most disturbing symptom of a broader psychological problem: a spectrum of angst that plagues 21st century teens.

Adolescents today have a reputation for being more fragile, less resilient and more overwhelmed than their parents were when they were growing up. Sometimes they're called spoiled or coddled or helicoptered. But a closer look paints a far more heartbreaking portrait of why young people are suffering. Anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability. It's a phenomenon that cuts across all demographics--suburban, urban and rural; those who are college bound and those who aren't. Family financial stress can exacerbate these issues, and studies show that girls are more at risk than boys.

In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 2 million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys--totaling 6.3 million teens--have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Experts suspect that these statistics are on the low end of what's really happening, since many people do not seek help for anxiety and depression. A 2015 report from the Child Mind Institute found that only about 20% of young people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment. It's also hard to quantify behaviors related to depression and anxiety, like nonsuicidal self-harm, because they are deliberately secretive.

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Still, the number of distressed young people is on the rise, experts say, and they are trying to figure out how best to help. Teen minds have always craved stimulation, and their emotional reactions are by nature urgent and sometimes debilitating. The biggest variable, then, is the climate in which teens navigate this stage of development.

They are the post-9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity. They've never known a time when terrorism and school shootings weren't the norm. They grew up watching their parents weather a severe recession, and, perhaps most important, they hit puberty at a time when technology and social media were transforming society.

"If you wanted to create an environment to churn out really angsty people, we've done it," says Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Sure, parental micromanaging can be a factor, as can school stress, but Whitlock doesn't think those things are the main drivers of this epidemic. "It's that they're in a cauldron of stimulus they can't get away from, or don't want to get away from, or don't know how to get away from," she says.

In my dozens of conversations with teens, parents, clinicians and school counselors across the country, there was a pervasive sense that being a teenager today is a draining full-time job that includes doing schoolwork, managing a social-media identity and fretting about career, climate change, sexism, racism--you name it. Every fight or slight is documented online for hours or days after the incident. It's exhausting.

"We're the first generation that cannot escape our problems at all," says Faith-Ann. "We're all like little volcanoes. We're getting this constant pressure, from our phones, from our relationships, from the way things are today."

Phoebe Gariepy, 17, appears in her bedroom at home in Arundel, ME on January 10, 2016.Lise Sarfati for TIME
Phoebe Gariepy, 17, appears in her bedroom at home in Arundel, ME on January 10, 2016.
Lise Sarfati for TIME
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