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Angst Documentary: A Mira Costa Senior Gives His Perspective

Mar 13, 2022 03:10PM ● By Luke Fratello

Film still from the documentary "Angst"

(Editor's note: When we saw that there was a documentary about teen anxiety being screened at Mira Costa High School, we asked Luke Fratello, a Mira Costa senior, to cover the story and  share his perspective on stressors that teens face in high school.)

A screening of the 43-minute documentary “Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety” at Mira Costa High School last week showed that many teens today find themselves struggling with anxiety and stress.

The screening was hosted by Mira Costa, the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, and the MBUSD Social Emotional Learning Committee. It was followed by a panel discussion hosted by Mira Costa Vice Principal Daniel Pestle, and a slate of school psychologists and mental health experts.

The panelists uniformly agreed that anxiety, stress, and depression are major factors in teen life today, and have especially been present over the last two years during the pandemic and post-pandemic.

The documentary and panel discussion also identified some of the options parents have for helping their children through bad spells such as these.

“It’s something that really needs to be discussed more," said panelist Emory Chen, youth services manager at Beach Cities Health District. "We need to recognize that there’s always something we can do about it. There’s something really powerful about embracing that collectively.”

Documentary Features Phelps, Teenagers, Medical Experts

The film centers around a series of interviews ranging across a variety of students, age groups, and professions. It focuses specifically on the issue of anxiety and anxiety disorders and how they increasingly affect the lives of children and teenagers today.

Anxiety is normal for every human being, according to the filmmakers. It's a system of survival that has developed over years of evolution. It's natural to be anxious, it’s natural to have fears and opportunities to push yourself out of your comfort zone. However, this stress system is often triggered in the society we find ourselves in today, and somebody with clinical anxiety is often incapable of pushing through those fears.

One teenager in the film described it this way:  “All of a sudden your body just shuts down. I just start crying and I can’t explain it. I freeze up and I can’t… do anything.”

Another teen said, “It’s like my brain isn’t functioning properly. And it's really scary.”

The film features a guest appearance from Michael Phelps, professional swimmer and Olympic gold medalist. Phelps opens up about his own lifelong battle with anxiety and depression, and the low points and setbacks he found himself in because of it.

Michael Phelps from the "Angst" documentary.


“I would almost ignore it," said Phelps. "I would shove it way far down and just keep pushing it aside. After eventually reaching a point of clarity, it was time for me to figure out what was going on, and ask for help. I learned to understand that’s it’s okay not to be okay.”

"Angst" also explores studies on the disorders themselves, common triggers for them, tools to relieve stress and anxiety, and the role of parents, specifically what they can do to help. It does its best to remove the stigma around discussing anxiety, and attempts to bring more awareness to the issue.

The documentary reaffirms that the most important takeaway for all of us is to be more open with each other in order to nurture a better sense of trust. The first step is always finding the strength to talk to someone about it.

The film also mentions the importance of tools we can use to relieve negative feelings like these. Those tools include finding the time to get outside, distract yourself with a hobby, or get your thoughts out onto a journal are some simple, often overlooked ways to ground ourselves back to reality. Keeping things bottled up will only make you feel worse in the end.

Panelists Offer Hope, Resources

In addition to Pestle and Chen, the panel discussion featured Janet Allen, school psychologist at Mira Costa; Sina Evans, school counselor at Mira Costa; Moe Gelbart, director of behavioral health at Torrance Memorial Medical Center; and Rachel Lloyd, a therapist at Meadows Elementary, Manhattan Beach Middle School, and South Bay Children's Health Center.

The panelists discussed students' struggles with anxiety in the MBUSD school district, the role of social media, managing anxiety itself, and the importance of being more open with each other.

“High schoolers, especially younger children, may not totally know how to express what they’re feeling," said Lloyd. "It’s important to acknowledge the tools that we can take advantage of to change our perspective and make us all feel better.”

Added Chen, “Many students feel this intense competitiveness, this insatiable pressure they put on themselves that subconsciously brings them down."

Pestle and other MBUSD parents in the audience also acknowledged the digital world’s role in our children’s lives today. Although it’s not all bad, they conceded, it’s undoubtedly a critical source of anxiety and stress for many teens out there.

“There's a lot of scientific proof behind the fact that social media can cause our kids to simply melt down," said Evans. "It’s often way too big of an influx of information."

Added Allen, “Everything is good in moderation. When it’s breaking opportunities of social interaction, that’s where the problem starts."

The speakers on the panel all reaffirmed the significance of parent involvement, which is admittedly difficult, but more important than one might realize. It’s scary to see your child struggle so vividly, and as the parent, it’s important to make yourself available.

“Acknowledgement is the first step," said Chen. "Sometimes it doesn’t require that you say anything, just to listen."

“The thing that you need to do as a parent is let them know that it’s OK to feel what they’re feeling," noted Allen. "Always reiterate that unconditional love. Let them know that you’re available.”

Allen continued: “You’re not judging as the parent; you want to know. 'What are you experiencing? It looks so painful for you. How can I help?' Just saying those words as a parent can be really valuable.”

A First-Hand Perspective on Stress at Mira Costa

All of this lines up with what many surveys have shown recently regarding Mira Costa students; that stress can take a toll.

In the 2021 California Healthy Kids Survey, 42% of Mira Costa 11th graders said they experienced chronic sadness or hopelessness in the last 12 months.

And an alarming 13% of Mira Costa 11th graders reported that they had "seriously considered" attempting suicide in the last 12 months.

As a senior at Mira Costa, I know firsthand how much stress and anxiety students here feel on a day-to-day basis, and I have had plenty of my own experiences with it.

At the end of the day, high school is a very stressful time. On top of going through the most crucial changes in our lives so far and trying to figure out our place in this world, students have to navigate through a high-pressure social environment while maintaining good grades, extra-curriculars, and holding on to decent friends.

In my opinion, It's especially hard to deal with these kinds of things from a child-to-parent perspective, because the kinds of things kids deal with these days are often beyond explanation. There is a challenging disconnect in the modern parent-child dynamic; a disconnect that can only be abolished through love, trust, talking, and listening.

I strongly agree with what the documentary and panelists had to say about uniformly learning to be more open with each other. During these stressful foundational times, it's very easy to get caught up in the mess and take your mind to a dark place.

The first step is always attempting to put your feelings into words and getting them out there. And in reality, everyone is going through something of their own.

My advice to other students is: Don’t make your world more lonely than it has to be.

Luke Fratello is a senior at Mira Costa High School.

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