This World Mental Health Day, people across the globe are taking a moment to reflect on recent trends in teen mental health, and the way adults can support young people in a changing world.
Adolescence is an awkward and emotional time for most people. However, for many, it also marks when they first began to struggle with a mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 50 percent of lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. While this phenomenon isn’t new, teen mental health has gradually worsened in recent years.
Since October 10, 1992, World Mental Health Day has served as an opportunity to open up conversations about mental health. These conversations can be especially important when it comes to vulnerable and struggling populations, like adolescents. This World Mental Health Day’s focus is teen mental illness, the factors that contribute to it, and the ways that parents and adults can best support the young people in their lives.
The Current State of Teen Mental Health
While adolescents are often dismissed as dramatic, entitled or lazy, today’s teens face unique stressors that previous generations didn’t. Young people’s lives are steeped in social media. This keeps them closely connected to their peers at all times, which can leave them vulnerable to cyberbullying. It also means that they’re often the first to hear about the latest school shooting or international tragedy.
It’s no wonder that teen mental health is on the decline. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that the percentage of teens who reported experiencing a major depressive episode in the past year rose from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.5 percent in 2014. Data from the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that 6.3 million teens, or 30 percent of all girls and 20 percent of boys, grapple with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. These numbers likely don’t convey the true extent of the problem, as a significant portion of teen mental illness goes undiagnosed and untreated.
These new set of challenges, along with rising rates of adolescent mental health disorders begs the question: how can adults help protect their teen’s mental health in a changing world?
How You Can Help
Navigating parenting in this social media era can be difficult. Fortunately, there are some concrete steps you can take to help support your teenager and their mental health, and connect them to professional resources if necessary.
1. Model Healthy Habits
No parent is perfect, but you’re more likely to support your son or daughter effectively when you work toward being the best version of yourself. Taking the following steps can help maintain your own mental health and set an example of healthy living for your teenager:
- Practice healthy substance-use habits. Adolescents look to their parents to learn how to cope with life’s hardships. If you frequently overindulge in alcohol or other substances to blow off steam or relieve stress, you could be sending the message to your teenager that they need to use substances to cope with their feelings. Substance use, especially during one’s adolescence, can exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues.
- Limit screen time. While social media isn’t solely to blame for the recent rise in teen mental illness, it is certainly a factor. However, excessive phone use isn’t a struggle unique to teens — many parents also have a problem with it. Studies show that the longer teens spend on their phones, the more likely they are to report feeling unhappy. While it can be difficult to control your teenager’s technology use, you can take steps to monitor your own. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of teens say they often or sometimes find their caregiver to be distracted by their own cell phone when they are trying to have a conversation with them. By being mindful of your screen time, you can show your teen how to have healthy boundaries with technology, and make time for meaningful interactions with them.
- Seek professional help for yourself, if necessary. It can be difficult to model psychological wellness for your teenager if you yourself struggle with a mental health condition. Reaching out to a professional when you’re feeling overwhelmed and engaging in self-work can help you be better equipped to support your son or daughter.
2. Watch for the Signs
The teen years are tumultuous for everyone so it’s difficult for many parents to tell the difference between normal adolescent angst and the early signs of mental illness. The symptoms associated with different mental illnesses can also vary widely.
Generally, the following behaviors could be signs of a mental health issue:
- Persistent feelings of anxiety or worry
- Sadness or withdrawal that lasts longer than two weeks
- Disobedience or aggression
- Frequent stomach aches or headaches
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Significant, persistent decline in academic performance
- Dramatic changes in behavior or personality
- Extreme difficulty concentrating
- Significant weight loss or weight gain
- Signs of self-harm, including cuts, burns or bruises
- Substance use, including alcohol, tobacco and marijuana
Yearly doctor’s visits can be an important part of catching these signs early. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends depression screenings for all young people between the ages of 11 and 21. Make sure your teenager’s pediatrician provides these screenings as part of their wellness checks.
While these screening measures can be helpful, in the end, you’re the one who sees your son or daughter every day. You know them better than anyone. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, listen to it.
3. Start a Conversation
If you notice your teen exhibiting any of telltale signs of mental illness, it’s important that you don’t ignore them. Opening up a conversation about their experience is the first step toward understanding what they’re going through, and getting them help if they need it. However, while it’s crucial not to ignore signs of a deeper issue, it’s important that you don’t broach the topic in a confrontational, judgmental or overly emotional way. While you might be frustrated with your teen’s behavior, don’t get angry or resort to punishment immediately. In all likelihood, if your teenager could easily make themselves feel better, they would. Their struggle likely goes deeper than simply making the decision to cheer up or snap out of it.
Gently ask about what your teenager has been experiencing and try your best to understand them, instead of jumping to criticism or critique. For example, instead of accentuating the negative aspects of their behavior and asking, “You haven’t hung out with your friends lately, why is that?” say, “It seems like you’ve been feeling down. Is that true?” This opens up the opportunity for your teenager to talk to you about their feelings, instead of putting them on the defensive.
4. Locate Professional Resources
Tragically, lost adolescents who struggle with mental health issues don’t receive proper care until adulthood, if at all. A 2015 report from the Child Mind Institute found that only about 20 percent of young people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 40 percent with depression get treatment. Currently, the average delay between the onset of mental health symptoms and professional intervention is between eight and ten years.
Because of this, it’s important to try to connect your teenager to the help they need if they’re struggling. However, teens will only truly benefit from therapy or treatment if they undergo it willingly. Unless they are in immediate, life-threatening danger, it’s important to not force or coerce your teenager into seeking treatment.
If your teenager does open up to you about a mental health struggle they’re having, try not to avoid offering quick solutions. Instead, let them know that you’re there for them, and explain that professional care may be able to help them feel better. If you personally have participated in therapy, sharing your experiences can help encourage them to agree to seek help.
However, if your teenager is suicidal, it’s critical that you reach out to professional resources, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, immediately. Quicker interventions may also be required if they are abusing drugs or alcohol or dealing with co-occurring mental illness and addiction.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.