Teen depression and anxiety are topic of Semel program showcasing new documentary

Director Jen Greenstreet discusses mental health with UCLA Health psychiatrist Dr. Artha Gillis.

Filmmaker Jen Greenstreet has been making documentaries about challenging health diagnoses — diabetes, autism, Down syndrome, cancer — for 15 years. But when a friend asked if she’d ever consider making a film about anxiety disorders and depression, Greenstreet hesitated.

She had only made movies about medical conditions, she explained, so this subject matter would be a departure.

“That’s exactly why we need to make this film,” Greenstreet recalls her friend saying. “Because anxiety disorders and depression are medical conditions — and you’re not the only one that doesn’t understand that.”

Greenstreet accepted the challenge and “Just Like You: Anxiety + Depression” was released in 2022. The filmmaker shared clips and discussed her work during a recent “Open Mind” virtual program presented by Friends of the Semel Institute.

Greenstreet was joined by Major League Baseball announcer Ryan Lefebvre – author of “The Shame of Me: One Man’s Journey to Depression and Back” – who appears in the film, and Artha Gillis, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Clockwise, from top left, Ryan Lefebvre, Jen Greenstreet and Dr. Artha Gillis discuss teen mental health in a virtual program presented by Friends of the Semel Institute. (Photo by Sandy Cohen/UCLA Health)

Youth mental health crisis

More than half of young adults say they’ve experienced depression in the past year and more than three-quarters report experiencing anxiety, according to a recent California Endowment survey of nearly 800 Californians age 18 to 24.

Younger teens are suffering, too. The U.S. Surgeon General issued a public health advisory in December 2021, noting the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness rose by 40% from 2009 to 2019. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24.

“Just Like You: Anxiety + Depression,” which is available to stream free on several platforms, presents firsthand accounts from five young people living with anxiety disorders and depression. Lefebrve and TV news anchorwoman Abby Eden also share their personal experiences with the conditions.

Animated segments help explain the difference between ordinary sadness and worry and the medical conditions of depression and anxiety disorders.

“The right amount of anxiety is great. Human beings need it to keep us safe,” child psychologist Ali Mattu, PhD, says in the film. “It’s similar to a reflex. We can’t control it. It just happens, like coughing or sneezing.”

One way to assess whether anxiety has gone beyond normal worry and become disordered is to ask, “Is this anxiety productive or unproductive,” Dr. Gillis says.

Ordinary sadness is a social signal, the film explains. It can help us seek connection and draw closer to others. Depression, however, can cause a person to isolate and withdraw.

“When my depression hits, it takes me over,” says a teen in the film. “It’s like I am drowning and everyone is telling me I am not. That I’m fine. I’m OK. But I know I’m not.”

Supporting loved ones with mental illness

If a loved one is struggling with anxiety or depression, one of the best things to do is to talk with and listen to that person, the film suggests. It can be tempting to try to cheer up someone with depression or to point out the good things in their lives, but that’s often ineffective, Lefebrve says.

“Just sitting there and asking people how they feel and letting them unload how they feel — just giving their depression a voice — that was a big deal for me,” he says.

“Everyone feels like they’re suffering alone, like they’re suffering in silence,” says Dr. Gillis. “They do wish they could be more authentic with the people closest to them.”

“Just Like You” also addresses suicide and reminds viewers that talking about suicide with family members or friends they’re concerned about doesn’t increase its likelihood.

It’s important to take such concerns seriously and seek medical help if necessary.

“If your kid was experiencing an asthma attack or something extreme in their medical illness, we wouldn’t say it’s just an idiom of distress and ignore it as an attention-getting measure,” says Dr. Gillis. “And just to reassure parents: When you get your kid help, there is a relief that happens.”

Dr. Gillis says that when she evaluates children in the emergency department who are having suicidal thoughts, “they’re not mad that their parents brought them,” she says. “They are relieved that they’re finally getting help, that someone heard them.”

She adds: “It’s not a reflection on parenting if your child needs help with anxiety or depression.”

The film repeatedly draws parallels between depression and anxiety disorders and health problems such as asthma or flu — all medical conditions beyond an individual’s control.

“Depression is not my fault and it doesn’t make me weak,” one teen says.

“Just like it’s not my fault when my stomach growls super loudly or I sneeze a lot,” says another.

While there is no cure for depression or anxiety disorder, the conditions can be managed with such tools as therapy, medication, exercise, healthy diet, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises.

Learn more about Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at UCLA Health.