'Angst' at the Plaza Theater

Students from Prescott fill the Plaza Theater in Waitsburg on Friday for a showing of “Angst.” The documentary features several Prescott students and was created to help raise awareness of anxiety disorders in children and teenagers.

Katia Sanchez experienced her first anxiety attack in sixth grade. Not that she recognized it or understood what was happening at the time, the Prescott High School student said.

By age 14, however, an overriding anxiety had seeped into much of Sanchez’s life. Telltale signs of what would eventually be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder were interfering with her life: excessive foot wiggling, rapid breathing, accelerated speech and a need to tap on something … anything.

As part of an immigrant family, Sanchez arrived in America at age 3. Now 17, she understands some of her unrest lies in today’s political climate. Yet even as a young child, “my parents knew something was off with me,” she recalled.

Mental health experts say anxiety is a normal human condition everyone experiences. Our bodies use it to warn us when something is not right in our environment, said Megan Tolliver, a counselor with Trilogy Recovery Community in Walla Walla.

The next level up — anxiety disorder — can be impairing, affecting our ability to live a normal life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorder involves more than temporary worry or fear. Someone with the disorder will have anxiety that does not abate and can grow worse over time. Those feelings can interfere with work, school and relationships.

A number of anxiety disorders can present themselves, including panic and social anxiety disorders, and the problem is not as uncommon as some think, Tolliver said.

Sanchez knows she is not alone, she said, and feels honored to be part of a new documentary by IndieFlix film company called “Angst,” that’s getting national and global attention.

She and two other Prescott students landed in the production via a longtime friendship between filmmaker Karin Gornik and Prescott teacher Bob Young. Gornick, executive producer of 2016’s “Screenagers,” had a personal story to tell, she said, and applauded the Prescott students for their willingness to help spread the message via their own experiences.

“Angst,” being screened in schools and community spaces across the United States and in other countries, aims to raise awareness of anxiety disorder in children and teens.

Even Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps discusses in the film his own experiences with being bullied in childhood, leading to his crippling anxiety and depression. Phelps said he tried to ignore and mask his anxiety for years.

“I just didn’t like who I was. If something was bothering me that would start to come up — and I would start feeling angry or depressed or upset — I would almost ignore it,” Phelps told a fellow sufferer in the documentary.

“I would shove it even further down, so I wouldn’t have to deal with it, so I would never have to talk about it,” he said. “It got to my tipping point, where I just blew up. I couldn’t take it any longer.”

On Friday, students from Prescott School District attended a screening of the film at Plaza Theater in Waitsburg, a moment Gornik said she has been anxiously awaiting.

Gornick’s awakening to how anxiety can darken life came via her own son. In 2016, when he was in eighth grade, the boy’s anxiety skyrocketed.

“He was withdrawing from sports, which he loved,” she said. “He was getting seriously depressed. With him, it manifested with (obsessive compulsive disorder) and he would look around for things to hurt himself with.”

Despite her son’s good grades and good friends, he had slipped through the cracks, Gornik recalled.

“Inside he was just a mess … He wasn’t going to school. It was bad. He tried to commit suicide.”

It was the filmmaker’s first glimpse at what parents go through when their children experience mental health crises, and it led Gornik to pair with IndieFlix co-founder Scilla Andreen to make something that would help families. Andreen understands the toll depression can take and fully supported Gornik’s quest.

“We are filmmakers and also moms, and we wanted it to be hopeful and from a teen’s perspective,” Gornik said.

Gornik, originally from Seattle, said her son was in residential treatment at WayPoint Academy in Utah for a year, returning home to California much healthier last March. In Utah, mother and son learned about preventing everyday anxiety from spinning out of control with several therapy options, Gornik said.

Her own high level of anxiety — and how that shaped her parenting — had long escaped Gornik’s notice.

“It turns out a huge percentage of kids with anxiety have at least one parent with anxiety,” she said, adding that adults are responding to the documentary since many never received help to overcome anxiety disorder in their youth.

“Angst” is a chance to connect sufferers with care in their own communities. Screenings like the one in Waitsburg have counselors on hand to offer understanding, explanations and local treatment possibilities, Gornik said.

“One thing we are finding is that teens want help, but therapists are overwhelmed by the increasing anxiety in our society. Parents are finding waiting lists,” she said, adding there are a number of remote therapy programs proving useful in the effort to improve health care for teens.

According to data from the state Department of Health, Walla Walla teens are reporting higher-than-state-average levels of anxiety and the issues that accompany it, such as depression and substance abuse. It’s hard to know if that is from increased problems or more ease in reporting it, Tolliver said.

“This documentary is kind of normalizing the feeling,” she said. “It’s saying, ‘We all experience this, but there is a boundary we can cross. And we can talk about it.’ I think as many ways we can talk about this, the better.”

Kids can survive if there is an adult from whom they draw guidance, Tolliver added.

The documentary features candid interviews with multiple teens and young adults who have experienced anxiety disorder, as well as mental-health experts. In Gornik’s opinion, the Prescott students are heroes for participating. It’s a small school in a rural school district, which can make honest conversations about these kinds of problems more difficult to have, she said.

And Young should be commended for allowing the filmmakers and the production crew access to his classroom, Gornik said. “By doing that he is literally saving lives.”

It’s the same with the students, she added. “I am so proud of them. They get to see the effects they are having on other teens.”

Sanchez said she was happy to help. The Latino culture struggles to accept mental health issues, she said, and “Angst” is one step in that education process.

As Sanchez continues to work on keeping her anxiety manageable — breathing exercises and practice in being mindful in the moment are her best tools, she said — the teen is planning ahead to a career in neuroscience as a way to help people who have similar difficulties.

“There’s a line in the film: ‘Embrace it, don’t run from it,’” Katia said Friday. “I don’t want to run from it anymore.”

For more information or to schedule a viewing of “Angst,” go to angstmovie.com.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.