Anxiety disorders are the most common class of mental disorders affecting youth in the United States. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, specific phobia, and often refers to related disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
While some levels of anxiety are healthy, anxiety disorders can become debilitating and prevent one from fully participating in life. It can also lead to depression and suicidality if left untreated.
Anxiety most often develops during the period between childhood and young adulthood. Without a doubt, adolescent and young adult patients need specialized care tailored to their developmental stage and unique needs.
Adolescents with anxiety disorders are at elevated risk for later anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, substance dependence, and poorer educational outcomes.
At Weill Cornell Medicine, the Youth Anxiety Center is a specialized organization that provides evidence-based services for patients ages 16 to 28 who may be experiencing an anxiety disorder. Clinicians at the Center are specialists in treating this unique age range and offer a variety of services.
Dr. Avital Falk, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry and Director of the Pediatric OCD, Anxiety, and Tic Disorders (POCAT), explained, “We specialize in this important developmental period: the transition from adolescence to early adulthood, which can be particularly challenging. This age range is often lumped in with either ‘children’ or ‘adults.’ Our Center recognizes this as a distinct period that requires specialized care for this critical developmental stage.”
Diagnosis: All patients receive an intensive diagnostic evaluation conducted over a series of sessions. All sessions are conducted by a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in working with young patients.
A thorough, expert diagnosis is vital for successful treatment. “Individuals at our Center,” said Dr. Falk, “receive a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation at the start of treatment, and their treatment plan is based on their specific diagnosis and presentation.” This expert diagnosis ensures that treatment is as individualized as possible.
Treatment options: The Center offers a variety of treatment options to suit the needs of each patient:
All patients receive cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of “talk therapy”). Some patients also receive other treatments, such as medication management, and exposure and response prevention.
Tailored, scaffolded approach to managing anxiety: The Center’s expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy offers patients treatment with the most significant evidence for improving anxiety.
Dr. Angela Chiu, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry and Assistant Attending Psychologist in the Adolescent and Adult Partial Hospitalization Programs, explained, “Often, patients and their families come to the Center with the goal of eliminating the anxiety or ‘beating’ it. We work with them to understand what anxiety is—our body’s natural alarm system that helps alert us to danger. Because anxiety can be adaptive, our goal is not to eliminate it all together. Rather, we use this alarm system to help us recognize the difference between a real or a false alarm and to respond accordingly. At our Center, we teach skills to manage anxiety more effectively so that it does not get in the way.”
The best way for patients to learn to manage their anxiety disorder is to create a structured, “scaffolded” approach, based on the individual’s unique needs. “Our clinicians,” detailed Dr. Chiu, “help patients to sequentially face their fears, often baby step by baby step.”
Evidence-based, successful treatment for anxiety: “Cognitive behavioral therapy, with a strong focus on exposure, is the psychotherapy with the strongest evidence base for youth anxiety disorders,” said Dr. Chiu. “Practicing enables a decrease in symptoms while increasing coping so that young adults can tolerate being uncomfortable and function without avoidant coping.”
Dr. Falk expanded, “Our goal is to build strength in tackling all the challenges that life may throw at youth! Many teens and adolescents come in wanting to get rid of their anxiety. Instead, we work to reduce it to manageable levels, and teach patients how to face their fears and manage any anxiety that may come up. They can then accomplish everything that they’d like to in their lives.”
Clinicians at the Center work with families and loved ones to better help patients. This includes educating families about anxiety disorders, treatment options, and management strategies, as well as patient/family consultations. “We try to meet each family where they are,” said Dr. Chiu. “Each case is unique, so we take an individualized approach.”
The Weill Cornell Medicine Psychiatry Specialty Center also works directly with parents whose children are patients of the Youth Anxiety Center to provide parent training. Parents learn more about anxiety disorders, coping skills, and strategies for parenting children with these disorders. In addition, parents can connect with and receive support from fellow parents.
The Center places a strong focus on research initiatives that will further knowledge of anxiety in youth, as well as increase positive treatment outcomes and healthy lifestyles for youth with anxiety disorders.
There are a number of exciting studies being conducted at the Center, including several to gather information and create a clearer picture of how widespread anxiety is within the emerging adult population.
“Our team is interested in finding out how common anxiety is in acute psychiatric care facilities like our partial hospitalization program,” explained Dr. Chiu. “Although anxiety is rarely the reason for referral to our partial program, we are noticing anxiety a lot clinically; some studies indicate that the rate of anxiety disorders is as high as 30 percent among adolescents. Anxiety may be contributing to the constellation of mental health problems that lead young adults to present for acute levels of care, and we are interested in learning more about the role that anxiety plays.”
Other research initiatives focus on advancing the neurobiological understanding of anxiety disorder during this development period, as well as new or alternative treatment options.
“Faculty at the Youth Anxiety Center are examining the benefits of virtual reality (VR) technology in helping youth confront their fears and recover from social anxiety more quickly and fully,” said Dr. Falk. “VR is an established, safe, and effective method for augmenting exposure therapy in adults with anxiety. It is now being developed specifically for anxious youth by members of the Youth Anxiety Center team.”
Using the latest research and evidence-based treatment options, the Youth Anxiety Center at Weill Cornell Medicine is here to help adolescents and emerging adults learn to manage their specific anxiety disorder and achieve their life goals.
Learn more about the Youth Anxiety Center and the other conditions that our Psychiatry Specialty Center treats. You can make an appointment with one of our board-certified psychiatrists by calling (646) 962-2820.