“I’m Elizabeth Vargas. I’m a news anchor at ABC News and I suffer from anxiety. I have all my life.”
Teaming up for a new campaign with the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that works with children struggling with mental health and learning disorders, Elizabeth Vargas, 54, is opening up about her lifelong struggle with anxiety. Vargas’ video is part of a larger series the Child Mind Institute is launching in which celebrities including Emma Stone, Michael Phelps, Lena Dunham talk about their personal experience with — and the stigma surrounding — mental illness.
“My earliest memories as a little girl are infused and filled with worry and fear,” the ABC News anchor says in a PEOPLE exclusive video discussing her battle. “Not all the memories, but many.”
Vargas says that when she was 6 years old, her father was deployed in the Vietnam War, which is when she started having panic attacks “every single day.”
“I couldn’t control it and I couldn’t explain why I would sob and cry and plead and beg for my mom not to leave me every day. This wasn’t a time when people were paying a lot of attention to the children of soldiers at war. No one asked me why I was panicking and I kept my panic a secret. I felt ashamed of it. I hid it as I grew older.”
But as she got older, she said the negative feelings didn’t leave her. In fact, Vargas revealed last September that her crippling bouts of anxiety were a major contributing factor in her years-long struggle with alcoholism.
“If I could tell my younger self one thing it is this: you are not alone. You are not the only one who feels this way,” she says.
Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz heads up the Child Mind Institute campaign, known as Speak Up for Kids, and says having prominent faces like Vargas talk so honestly about their struggles is impactful for kids.
“Here are these remarkable individuals who give a message that says, ‘If you are not ashamed, if you speak up, if you get a diagnosis and if you get treatment, your life can be as full and as productive as anyone’s — if not even more so than some average people,” he says, adding that 17 million kids in the U.S. have a mental health or learning disorder. “One of the things that change people’s minds about this is when we decrease stigma … And now I think it’s time for us to recognize how real, common and treatable these diseases are.”
For those struggling with anxiety, Vargas encourages people to “talk about it with someone else — it’s the first step to feeling better.”