Kara Baskin’s article ”Reentry plan,” (Comfort Zone, March 19) emphasizes the importance of monitoring teenagers’ depression and suicidal thoughts as we all return to work and school. An additional prevalent problem is that of social anxiety. Many teenagers are worried about the major readjustment that the resumption of school entails. However, for those who suffer from social anxiety disorder (11 percent of females and 7 percent of males), interacting with other students creates massive irrational anxiety that interferes with their functioning. These students are extremely fearful of negative evaluation and humiliation. They often slip into avoidance and restricted activities, all to reduce or avoid anxiety, but these behaviors make matters worse.
In my practice I have seen students who were, in contrast to many others, quite relieved to be taking classes virtually because they could avoid many of their social fears. Virtual learning created some anxiety but was quickly reduced when a class was over, and thus a year-long pattern of avoidance was created. Their return to school is likely to be accompanied by a spike in anxiety that impairs relationships and the educational process.
Parents and teachers can help these students by understanding that this disorder is more than shyness. Rather than minimizing a teen’s fears, even as an attempt at reassurance, it is important to validate those feelings. Rehearsing reentry — with exposure to other students, controlled breathing, and a focus on coping strategies — can prevent or mitigate social anxiety. In addition, cognitive behavior therapy and, possibly, medication can provide effective treatment.
The writer is a clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior and medicine at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University and is the author of “Mood Prep 101: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Depression and Anxiety in College-Bound Teens.”