Social Anxiety Is Increasing. Why Aren’t People Seeking Help?

Woman experiencing Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety Disorder is often misunderstood to be the same as shyness, when it is actually a very serious anxiety disorder. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that Social Anxiety Disorder is not just a medical description of shyness, and in fact the two are quite different. Social Anxiety Disorder, also called Social Phobia, is defined by extreme anxiety related to a fear of judgement from others that restricts one’s ability to engage in social situations.

Social Anxiety Disorder currently affects around 12 percent of the general population, or about 15 million Americans. These rates are higher than they have ever been, and researchers are trying to determine why this is. Many studies have shown a link between social media and anxiety and depression. People with Social Anxiety Disorder are especially prone to using social media as their primary means of socialization, so they are at an even higher risk of the negative effects related to comparisons to others, being left out, and cyber bullying.  Since people with Social Anxiety Disorder often avoid social situations, social media may be the only way that they interact socially with others. For those with severe Social Phobia, social media gives them the social outlet that they have been craving without the fear of having to interact with others face to face. For some people this does improve their mood, but for the majority it ends up backfiring by making them feel more anxious and/or depressed.

Only five percent of those with Social Anxiety Disorder seek treatment within a year of the disorder’s onset, and more than a third of those with Social Anxiety Disorder suffer with the disorder for over 10 years before seeking help. This is partially due to the many stigmas associated with seeking mental health treatment, as well as people with Social Phobia feeling too embarrassed to seek help. Many fear that they will be judged by others if they receive treatment, and since this fear is a central part of Social Anxiety Disorder, most are not able to push past it to seek help.

Stigma surrounding mental healthcare is a major problem in the United States, as it restricts many people from receiving the help that they need. There is a common misconception that anxiety and other mental disorders are something that people can just get through on their own if they try hard enough. This makes people feel like it is a weakness to seek help, so many just continue to struggle with these disorders that could so easily be treated. Furthermore, the mistaken belief that people suffering from mental illnesses are dangerous may also prevent people from seeking help. The depictions we see in movies and on the news about people with mental illness are for the most part exaggerated, making people think that their symptoms are not severe enough to warrant treatment.

Many mental health organizations are trying to decrease the stigmas related to mental illness so that people will seek the help that they need. Social media has helped to spread awareness of what Social Anxiety Disorder is and how it is treated; but, we still have a long way to go to reduce the stigmas of mental illness and mental healthcare. Every news story that suggests that mental illness is the cause of a school shooting sets back the progress that is being made. People are understandably scared, and find it helpful to place blame on mental illness, when in fact that is often not the case. Until mental healthcare is sought as regularly as medical healthcare, we will know that the stigmas are still out there.

But what if everyone were to routinely see a psychologist, psychiatrist, or another mental health professional as part of their yearly checkup? If we viewed mental healthcare in the same way that we view physical healthcare, the stigmas would start to break down. Additionally, if people were to get accurately diagnosed and treated for mental illness at the primary care level, and then referred to specialists as needed, there would be significantly less people suffering from mental illnesses in the United States.  When caught early, most mental illnesses can be treated. If people with Social Phobia did not have to go anywhere but to their yearly primary care appointment, and were able to receive treatment soon after their symptoms first presented, they would be able to live their lives with minimal interference from social anxiety.

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