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Key Takeaways:

  • A significant number of adolescents experience mental health conditions but do not get the recognition and treatment they need.
  • Biological, environmental, social, and psychological factors all play roles in the development of mental health issues in teenagers.
  • Parents and caregivers play an important role in identifying and reducing mental health problems in teenagers.

When teenagers are down with persistent illnesses, whether it’s a cough or a nasty sore throat, we always reach out to help. But mental health in teens doesn’t always get the same attention. Symptoms like irritability or disinterest in activities that used to be enjoyable are usually considered as part of a phase, teen angst, or something else that can easily be ignored. However, the mental well-being of adolescents has never been more important. Here, we discuss why that is and how you can identify when your teen needs help.

An Overview of Mental Health in Teens

Adolescence is a formative and unique time for teenagers. They experience physical, emotional, and social changes that happen rapidly and all at once. Unfortunately, this also makes them more vulnerable to mental health problems. Globally, it is estimated that 14% of teens experience mental health conditions, yet these continue to be unrecognized and untreated [*]. Data shows that anxiety and depressive conditions are most prevalent, followed by conduct disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [*]. Teenagers with mental health conditions are vulnerable to stigma, social exclusion, and discrimination. They also experience educational difficulties and risk-taking behaviors.

It was no surprise then that, in 2021, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, along with other organizations, declared a national emergency in mental health for children and adolescents. They appealed for increased funding for mental health resources and integrating mental health care into primary care and schools. They also called for strategies to increase the number of mental health providers while ensuring that insurance coverage included mental health care.

As institutions work to build mental health care systems, parents and caregivers also play a significant role in helping adolescents through this crisis. It all starts with recognizing when teenagers need help.

Importance of Recognizing When a Teenager Needs Help

While not every mental health challenge is diagnosed as a mental disorder, every challenge should still be taken seriously. Mental health challenges that are left unchecked can become more serious problems that impact all aspects of health.

As teens grow, they start spending more time with their peers, develop a sense of purpose and identity, and gain more independence. These experiences are essential for their development. However, mental health problems can disrupt this period of growth. And if left unaddressed, the effects of mental health problems can last long into adulthood and cause more serious complications.

Recognizing when teenagers need help is instrumental in ensuring that any mental health problems they have are given sufficient attention and care. This will prevent conditions like depression, anxiety, conduct disorders, and other mental health issues from progressing and causing adverse effects in life.

Factors Contributing to Mental Health Issues in Teens

Many factors contribute to mental health issues in teenagers. Here are some of the most significant ones:

Biological factors

  • Biological sex
  • Nutrition
  • Neurochemistry
  • Genetic predisposition to mental health
  • Overall physical health

Environmental factors

  • Climate
  • Pollution
  • Environmental racism
  • Crime levels
  • Levels of toxins in the home
  • Conflict in the home
  • Community conflict

Social factors

  • Feeling connected to home, school, and community
  • Having a sense of belonging
  • Being bullied
  • Teachers who do not understand students with mental health issues

Psychological factors

  • Beliefs (worldview)
  • Attitudes
  • Motivations
  • Emotional attachments
  • Coping responses to life stressors

Signs and Symptoms of Mental Health Issues in Teens

The symptoms of your teenager’s mental health issues will be unique to them. As a parent or caregiver, you have the best sense of your teen’s idea of “normal”. This puts you in a good position to look out for symptoms and signs of mental illness in teenagers.

Behavioral changes

  • Having trouble with daily activities
  • Having trouble eating or sleeping
  • Loss of interest or quitting activities they enjoy
  • Withdrawing more than usual from family and friends
  • Doing less well or suddenly refusing to go to school
  • Sexual interest or activity that seems new or more intense
  • Signs of self-harm (cuts, bruises, burns) that they try to hide or can’t fully explain
  • Signs of substance abuse

Emotional changes

Refusing to talk about what’s bothering them, even in safe spaces
Seeming down, hopeless, or tearful
Lacking in motivation
Anxious about weight or physical appearance
Constantly worried

Physical changes

  • Notable changes in sleep, eating habits, weight, or everyday patterns
  • Feeling physical pain (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, backaches)

Academic and social changes

  • Being aggressive or antisocial (i.e., missing school, getting into trouble with the police)
  • Having academic struggles that seem more intense
  • Obsession with a certain goal
  • Suddenly having a new set of friends
  • Avoiding friends or social contact

Remember that having just one symptom on this list doesn’t mean your teenager will need professional help or mental health coping skills. Changes in adolescence will affect teenagers in all aspects of life. However, if you constantly see one or more of these signs, then it might be a good time to open a conversation about mental health with your teenager.

How to Identify When Your Teenager Needs Help

Sometimes even the most glaring signs look like typical risk-taking or rebellious behavior in teenagers. The best way to spot mental illness in your teen is to maintain connection and continuously observe their behavior. Some signs develop quickly, while others take time and occur over a long period. Here are some ways to identify when your teenager needs help:

Physical symptoms

Teens who have mental health problems may lack energy, change their usual patterns of sleeping and eating, develop aches, and even neglect personal hygiene. These are typical signs that a psychological illness may be present.

Behavioral changes

As teenagers move through adolescence, their behavior will begin to evolve. However, it might be worth investigating if your teen’s behaviors are out of character, debilitating, or destructive.

Mood swings

Moods that swing from high to low states are often indicators of a mental illness. However, mood swings are quite typical for most teenagers. As parents and caregivers, it is up to you to differentiate mood swings that are out of character for your child.

Dropping grades

Lack of concentration is a common symptom of ADD, ADHD, depression, and anxiety. If you notice that your child is suddenly coming home with poor grades, then it may be a sign that something is bothering them.

Self-medication

Sometimes teens may be unable to cope or manage their internal experiences well. This can lead to behavior such as substance use, self-harm, disordered eating, or excessive exercise. In other words, your teen may be self-medicating to deal with the difficulties they are experiencing. This could be a sign of a mental illness.

Supporting Your Teenager’s Mental Health

Fortunately, there are many ways that you can support your teenager’s mental health. Here are some things you can try:

Make your home a judgment-free space

Show your child that, when they are at home, they are free from judgment. They can say what they feel, and you will always be there to support them. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have expectations about behavior and grades. However, you can have these expectations and remain empathic and forgiving to your teen.

Give your teen downtime

Teens are so busy that they sometimes forget to just rest. Make time for your kids to do things they enjoy without the stress of school requirements or other obligations.

Promote healthy media habits

Teenagers enjoy using their devices, as they connect them to friends and provide them with entertainment. However, too much time spent in front of screens can also have some repercussions on mental health. Talk to your teen about how social media affects mental health and offer some healthy tips, such as putting phones away before bed and picking up a book instead of endlessly scrolling through apps.

Encourage plenty of sleep and exercise

Sleep and exercise are essential for good mental health. Try going out for walks together after school and work. If your child enjoys a sport, then support them as much as possible. It is also helpful to have a general bedtime for everyone at home and a good understanding of nutrition and mental health.

Stay involved

Stay involved in your child’s life. This includes keeping in touch with their teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, and other adults. They know your child well outside of your home, so having an open line of communication with them can make a huge difference in preventing mental health problems from progressing in your teen.

Promote healthy stress management

Stress that is unaddressed can negatively impact your teen’s mental health. Encourage healthy management of stress with coping skills, positive mindsets, and healthy habits.

When to Seek Professional Help

Determining when you should seek professional help for your teen can be tricky. But some of the biggest red flags to watch out for include risky or reckless behaviors, explosive emotions, sleep problems, and other behaviors you feel are outside of your capacity to cope with. If you notice any of these signs, then seek help immediately.

The Bottom Line

Knowing how to help a teenager with mental health issues is challenging, even more so because adolescence is filled with all kinds of changes. But the importance of caring for mental health during this time has never been more pronounced. As parents and caregivers, we must ensure the well-being of our children, and our teenagers need us now more than ever. Whether you teach your kids the importance of self-care for mental health or coping strategies for tough situations that come with adolescence, your presence and efforts matter. If you need more support, do not hesitate to contact a mental health professional.

For additional coping skills to support good mental health feel free to present our mental health coping skills PDF bundle to your teen.

References:

  1. World Health Organization. Mental health of adolescents. 17 November 2021.
  2. UNICEF. Mental health. October 2021.

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