"We're all weirdos": A new documentary explores how Americans got so anxious

"Anxious Nation" chronicles anxiety among American youth — and everyone else

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 5, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Stressed Depressed Kid (Getty Images/ridvan_celik)
Stressed Depressed Kid (Getty Images/ridvan_celik)

Decades ago, anxiety was a niche diagnosis, something that few would openly admit to. Now anxiety permeates the culture like water — flowing outward from political and climate crises, from current events like the pandemic, and from economics (as in the term "economic anxiety"). To Gen Z, anxiety isn't the exception: It's the norm. 

This is one of the main premises of "Anxious Nation," a new documentary from filmmaker Vanessa Roth being released May 5th digitally and in theaters. Anxiety isn't merely internal and individual; it's a social problem, something the documentary makes quite clear through its interviews with the anxious. Indeed, if you count yourself among them, there are some scenes here that might unsettle you as they effectively demonstrate to the viewer what an anxiety attack feels like.

"If it's nature, it's you. If it's nurture, it's you."

The new documentary is executive produced and presented by former supermodel Kathy Ireland, and is co-directed by Roth and New York Times best-selling author Laura Morton. It starts in 2022 with an advisory from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who explains that mental illness is an epidemic among American youth, before shifting into a diverse range of stories from Generation Z-ers who struggle with anxiety. The term "diverse" here applies in two respects: The teenagers come from a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the manifestations of their anxiety are strikingly different. For some, their anxiety stems from early experiences with abuse or inherited medical problems; others experience racism in their own lives and are terrified by incidents like the murder of George Floyd. Multiple subjects express concern about climate change, or state how their worlds fell apart due to the COVID-19 lockdowns.

In an interview with Salon, Morton explained that she approached the subject from a very personal vantage point: Her teenage daughter suffers from an anxiety condition, and Morton admits in the film (and in our interview) that she made well-intentioned mistakes at first when trying to help her. Because of this perspective, Morton transforms "Anxious Nation" into a meditation on parenting just as profound as it is a mosaic of the voices of anxious youth. At no point does the film lose sight of the central fact that children develop anxiety disorders because of the world given to them by their parents. It does not matter if one believes anxiety comes from nature, nurture or both: Regardless of the answer, it is ultimately the parents' responsibility.

Just as "Anxious Nation" is a tribute to a generation that shows remarkable resilience while grappling with the anxiety disorders bequeathed unto them by their parents, it is also an instruction guide for parents who want to help their anxious children. (One highlight is when Emma Stone, who also has anxiety, reassures other anxious people that "we're all weirdos.") I spoke with Morton about the state of anxiety in America; our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The first person who is introduced is your own daughter, who is Jewish. We live in an era where anti-Semitism is on the rise. I thought it was rather courageous to open the story with not just a Jewish person, but a person who you're seeing getting Bat Mitzvah'd, so the Jewishness is explicit. Then there is another person who talks about experiencing racism and knowing that he doesn't look white and how he feels anxiety because of the racism in the society around him. To what extent do you think your film, through stories like those, is really about social justice as much as it is about mental health?

What a great question, Matt. I think it's very much about social justice, because I think that's such a trigger for so many people. If had we not shown the various stories that we do, I think we would've been doing an injustice to what different people experience. I don't know what it's like to be a member of the brown or black community anymore than somebody doesn't know what it's like to be a member of the Jewish community right now with rising rates of anti-Semitism.

It's interesting that you bring that up because I actually had somebody call me who's very close to me and said, "Are you a little worried about opening with the Bat Mitzvah?" I understood what they were saying, and it was coming from a very loving and protective place, but it made me want to lean into it even more.

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We're very proud to be Jewish. I think it's important that we stand firm in our beliefs, and I think it's also important that we don't judge anybody else for their beliefs. I think this is why we live in America. I think that the free speech, and the ability to be able to speak your mind — we may not like what another person has to say, but they have the same right to say it.

I think it was exceptionally important, especially while we were making the film. There was a lot of cultural unrest and upheaval, particularly that our kids were feeling. George Floyd, that whole circumstance took place while we were filming, very early on in our filming, and very early on — obviously we know it was in the days of COVID-19 – I think for our cast members, who are a part of the brown and black communities, I think it was something very much on the forefront for them. It would've been a disservice not to talk about what's happening culturally. 

The film discusses the role that parents, and that the older generations more generally, play in creating anxiety for youth. Now obviously most of this involves questions of parenting, and I am going to get to that later on. But I also feel there is an implicit political message here — because on a global scale if we allow the climate to continue to overheat, if we allow racial justice and economic injustice to continue, then we create a worse world for our children. Children seem to be aware of that.

I'm curious if you have any observations on the extent to which young people are aware of politics and aware of social issues and feel anxiety because of the world that their elders are creating for them.

"Every single statistic that we cite in our film in and around social media came from an internal study at one of those platforms at Facebook, at Instagram, at Twitter. They know the damage that they're doing."

In "Anxious Nation," I think we got to go out of our way to show all of the 24/7 stimulation that our kids are getting. Whether it's eco-anxiety, from the political current, from the racial issues that are happening in our country, I think our kids are exceptionally aware of it, because they're exposed to information 24/7, because they have access through their phones, right?

We used to be a home that had the news on every single night, and at some point early on in COVID-19, we just shut it down. But my daughter still had access because she was online, going to school, and she has her phone.

I think the kids are far more aware. I want to say that I think kids have always been aware of what's happening with politics. If you look back to the Vietnam War era, I think that, for sure, that was a generation that really was aware and really fought for what they believed in, whether it was fighting for their country or not wanting to be at war. I think our youth always finds something that they want to rally for or against. But I think today what we're seeing is because there is so much coming at these kids, there is so much information that they have access to, I think that it becomes overwhelming. And we really do talk about overstimulation in the film, which I think is a big piece of it. 

There is a certain paradox to the internet, to social media. Social media can be a great escape; you can find communities, or you can, as one of the people in the movie described, go on TikTok and become a star. You can go on Facebook and unite with like-minded people. But there is also a lot of toxicity. There is a lot of harassment. How does one keep the good and filter out the bad in terms of social media? 

I'm so happy you asked me this question. First of all, I wanna say, if it weren't for social media, nobody would know about my film right now. There are ways that we can use social media to do good, right? And to spread positive messages. And we see that all the time. And then we see the dark side of social media. We see the downside of social media. We see stories of cyber-bullying. We certainly know the correlation that social media and our devices have had on our children's mental health since the introduction of social media. But I'm a big believer that we can't blame the end user for much of this. I think we really have to look to the social media companies and really ask ourselves, why are we not demanding more from them?

"I'm the parent that thought I was doing all the right things, and I was coming from a pure place of love. And in the process, I didn't realize that some of the things I was doing were actually adding to [my daughter's] anxiety."

Why are they protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act? A law that was put into place in 1996, a law that didn't contemplate the power of social media platforms, and yet it basically says that these platforms can't be held reliable for much of the third party posting that happens on their website.

Here's the thing: every single statistic that we cite in our film in and around social media came from an internal study at one of those platforms at Facebook, at Instagram, at Twitter. They know the damage that they're doing. Section 230 basically gave tech companies the right to self-regulate. It's an insane and absurd proposition today to think that. We certainly wouldn't let tobacco companies self-regulate. We wouldn't let pharmaceutical companies self-regulate. So why are we letting the tech companies self-regulate? Why are we making them immune from the responsibility that they have when they know they're creating so much damage to our youth? 

Now I want to pivot to discussing the way that parents can create an anxious environment for their children, which is a major theme of the movie as well. There's one line where someone says, effectively, "Is it nature or nurture? And the answer is both." It is highly emphasized that parents can make mistakes in their parenting, even with the best intentions that create anxiety in their children. Are there any tips that you learned from your research and from making this movie? 

Thank you for asking this. As the parent of anxious child: I am that parent. I'm the parent that thought I was doing all the right things, and I was coming from a pure place of love and wanting to help my daughter in any way that I could. And in the process, I didn't realize that some of the things I was doing were actually adding to her anxiety and creating a bigger problem. I don't identify really as an anxious person. But now that I've made a movie on anxiety, I think I have a little more anxiety than I have ever had. I think what was so important was holding up the mirror and taking a look at my own behaviors and asking myself, wow, what can I change?

Because I had been looking at my daughter to make all the changes. And what we know is that anxiety shows up. And if, as one of our experts says in the film, it's like a cult leader in the home — so as long as you're doing everything that anxiety wants you to do, everything is fine, but as soon as you try to break away and say, 'Nope, we're not gonna do this, and the child then has an anxious moment, a panic attack, and they can't go to the barbecue at the neighbor's house because they don't know who's going to be there, and they want to sleep in your bed, and they can't go to school, and they go to school and they want to come home from the nurse's office — that's the cult leader, right? That dictates every single little thing that the family is doing.

"George Floyd, that whole circumstance took place while we were filming very early on in our filming and very early on — obviously we know in the days of COVID-19 – and I think for our cast members, who are a part of the brown and black communities, I think it was something very much on the forefront for them."

I think that as parents, we want to do right by our kids. We want to be great parents. So for me, I think the biggest takeaway that I learned was understanding that what my daughter was feeling was genuine and true and real. I was trying to process it through my mind as somebody who doesn't really struggle with anxiety, and I couldn't understand it. I did not understand what it felt like for her. Once I came to that big "A-ha!" moment where I said, "Oh,  she's not manipulating me. She is not trying to be difficult. She is not purposely being inconvenient, right? I have a meeting and she's having a meltdown. What do I do?" Once I understood that better, it was a game changer for us.

I think the other takeaway was that we now have a common language that we can use so that when she's describing her anxiety, I understand what she's saying, and I understand how to nurture her through that nature, right? One of our experts in the film psychotherapist Lynn Lyons says, "If it's nature, it's you. If it's nurture, it's you." And the question really is, how do we nurture through the nature? How do we give our kids the tools and the resilience and the capability to know that when this ceiling comes, it shall pass? What do you do? How do you work through it? I think that's one of the greatest takeaways that we have in the film is helping people understand that anxiety is energy and the energy can be repurposed and it can be used for good.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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