After a childhood steeped in depression and anxiety, Kaylie Rosen, 17, found happiness away at school — and then the pandemic sent her home.

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
July 02, 2020 09:00 AM
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Kaylie Rosen
| Credit: Aundre Larrow

Kaylie Rosen was wrapping up a spring break internship in the field of her career dreams — pediatric physical therapy — and ready to return to boarding school in New Hampshire for the homestretch of her junior year. It was March, and the 17-year-old was already looking forward to summer break and a grand trip — part-tourist, part-volunteer — that would take her from Thailand to Laos to Ethiopia, where she was to work with orphans in the Selamta Family Project.

"Two days before we were supposed to come back to school, they were like, 'Uh, don't,' " Kaylie recalls in an interview with PEOPLE. "I had my heart set on these trips I had planned. Now it's lots of Netflix and Hulu."

But for Kaylie, the stakes are much higher than dashed college visits and canceled plane tickets. Having to self-isolate at home is a special challenge for her because Kaylie is one of the growing number of American teens who suffer from an anxiety disorder, up 20 percent between 2007 and 2012. With the upheaval of the pandemic, experts are seeing signs of a steeper spike this year. In a May survey by the Harris Poll, 70 percent of American teens reported mental-health struggles this spring.

For more on managing anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

“There’s a lot of fear,” says Joseph F. McGuire, Ph.D., an expert in adolescent anxiety at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

For Kaylie, though, fear has nothing to do with catching the virus.

"I'm not afraid of germs or getting sick in the slightest," she says.

Instead, she worries that extended time back home on Long Island, New York with her parents — Lisa, a neuropsychologist, and Jeffrey, an orthopedic surgeon — brings her too close to the familiar demons of the illness she's known since she was 7, and keeps her too far from the support system she'd built for managing her symptoms.

"I don't do well at home," Kaylie says (whose older sister Talia, 20, also suffers from depression and anxiety, and is also self-isolating at home). "My friends mean the world to me. They get me through everything. The fact that I can't see them, which is the way I usually deal with my life, was devastating."

After struggling with depression, insomnia, panic attacks and anxiety that began to stir in the fourth grade, Kaylie suffered most acutely when she hit seventh grade and developed a paralyzing anxiety about school. It was her idea, in eighth grade, to get help at New Hampshire's Mountain Valley residential treatment center, which specializes in treating adolescent anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

There, she accepted that her illnesses, including OCD, are real, and that her parents can’t cure them. “I learned how to manage them myself,” Kaylie says.

After 73 days at Mountain Valley, Kaylie went straight to the nearby Brewster Academy boarding school, also her idea.

Her mom Lisa explains: "Mountain Valley was the first time Kaylie had to take care of Kaylie and do the hard work on her own. She's not her strongest self when she's with us because it's too easy for her to rely on us to alleviate her discomfort."

Now that she's unable to return to campus, Kaylie has developed new strategies for managing her illness at home. She redecorated her older brother Jacob's old bedroom rather than move back into the childhood bedroom where anxiety and depression first tormented her.

Jacob's room "doesn't remind me of when I would be lying on the floor unable to move," Kaylie says. To make intrusive thoughts feel manageable, she keeps a list of them on her phone or draws them out in colorful calligraphy pens. "It sort of took the monster out of it for me," she explains.

Kaylie Rosen
| Credit: Aundre Larrow

Kaylie says she also now recognizes the onset of paralyzing panic and can call out to Siri to dial a friend for a calming chat.

Perhaps most important, she's at work — remotely — with the Ethiopian orphanage, launching an online virtual learning camp. Kaylie recruited other volunteers her age and is teaching English classes once a week, plus helping out with other classes.

Lisa credits both Kaylie and Talia with being "braver and stronger than I ever was — or am."

"I think Kaylie is going to have a resilience throughout her life that I am so proud of," Lisa says.

As for Kaylie herself, she says: "Hope is a big thing for me. ... For the first time in my life I’ve been happy, and I know now what will keep me happy.”

Reporting by Wendy Grossman Kantor

For information on anxiety and depression, go to ADAA.org and for more of Kaylie's story—including her sister Talia's story and how the Rosen family deals with their strong family history of mental health issues—pick up the new issue of People, on stands Friday.