Teens and Mental Health: Common Problems, Issues, Disorders and What You Can Do To Help

by Polaris Teen Center | Sep 10, 2018 | Mental Health, Resources, Treatment

teen mental health

Mental illness is hugely common in adolescents and teenagers.  In fact, approximately one in five young people meet criteria for at least one mental illness.  Mental health issues can affect all areas of a teen’s life, from school performance to socialization and how they form relationships.  Mental illness is treatable, and the earlier it is caught, the better the prognosis tends to be.

Some common mental illnesses affecting adolescents and teens today are:

  • Anxiety disorders – among the most common mental health problems affecting teens and adolescents, anxiety disorders cause significant distress and worry that interferes with everyday life.  There are many different kinds of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – a brain disorder that typically develops in childhood or early adolescence, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder makes concentrating and staying focused very difficult.  Youth with ADHD tend to be more impulsive, and restless.
  • Conduct disorder – conduct disorder is a behavioral and emotional disorder that is only diagnosed in children and adolescents/teens.  Conduct disorder is marked by extremely aggressive and destructive behavior toward other people, pets or property. Because of this violent and disruptive behavior, many youth with conduct disorder struggle to follow rules, and often avoid places where rules are enforced (i.e. skipping school, running away from home, etc.).
  • Depression is a mood disorder that commonly shows up during the teenage years.  Depression is more than just experiencing low mood every once in a while – depression is marked by persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.  There are a few kinds of depression affecting adolescents and teens today:

-Dysthymia – considered a “low grade” and persistent (chronic) form of depression in teens and adolescents.  Dysthymia makes individuals more susceptible to other forms of depression/mood disorders.

Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood – typically a result of a major change or significant life event, adjustment disorder with depressed mood tends to be brief in nature, and if symptoms persist for longer than 6 months, the adolescent or teenager may be assigned a different diagnosis.

-Bipolar Disorder – marked by periods of depression, followed by periods of mania or hypomania, bipolar can cause significant impairment in teens.  Although bipolar is treatable (usually a combination of psychotherapy and medication), there is no identified cure.

-Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) – this type of depression is the most serious and pervasive, with an estimated 8% of adolescents and teenagers meeting diagnostic criteria.  Major depression typically impacts a child’s home, school, and social life.

  • Psychosis is a serious mental health condition often appearing in late adolescence or early adulthood.  Psychosis involves a loss of contact with reality, which could mean hearing, and/or seeing things that are not there (visual/auditory hallucinations), or believing things that are not true (delusions).  Warning signs can be difficult to spot, but if caught early, psychosis in adolescents and teenagers is treatable.
  • Eating disorders are less common in young children, with the risk increasing with age.  Although more common in females, eating disorders can affect teen males as well.  Eating disorders are serious and potentially life-threatening. The most common eating disorders in teens and adolescents are:

Anorexia – characterized by significant weight loss and a distorted view of body shape and size, individuals with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight and restrict caloric intake in an effort to maintain and/or lose weight.

Bulimia – teens with bulimia engage in periods of binging (eating large quantities of food in a short period of time), followed by compensatory behaviors (i.e. – purging, over-exercising, laxative use) to avoid weight gain.

Binge-eating disorder – marked by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food often to the point of physical discomfort), those who struggle with binge-eating often experience intense feelings of guilt and/or shame following a binge.  Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States today.

  • Schizophrenia this mental health disorder affects about 1% of the total population, and typically shows up in adolescence or early adulthood (between the ages of 15 and 25). Schizophrenia can make it extremely difficult for young people (or anyone struggling with this mental health disorder) to think and speak in an organized way. It can also contribute to people losing touch with reality.
  • Substance Abuse Disorder – the adolescent and teenage years are a critical time of increased vulnerability to the effect(s) of alcohol and/or drugs.  Because the brain is still developing, introducing drugs or alcohol can have a huge effect on the course of that development. Substance abuse disorder can contribute to the development of other mental health disorders, or in many cases, be the way a teen deals with the difficult symptoms of an already existent mental health disorder.  

Treatment for Teens with Mental Health Disorders

The earlier a mental illness is caught, the better chance your adolescent or teenager has for learning to manage the symptoms and decrease the impact it has on his or her life.  While most mental health disorders are not necessarily “curable,” there are many ways to treat them, and allow your child to live a happy, fulfilling life.

  • Psychotherapy – also referred to as individual therapy/counseling, adolescents and teenagers are able to have a safe space where they can explore painful feelings, thoughts, and events that could be contributing to the issue.  Psychotherapy is also a place where new coping skills and tools can be learned.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – this approach to therapy is often used with teenagers (individually, or in a group setting) to help them recognize unhelpful thought patterns, and begin to challenge and change those thought patterns.
  • Interpersonal therapy – the focus of this therapy is to identify ways to improve upon existing relationships and develop healthier communication patterns within those relationships (at work, school, etc.)
  • Medication – for the more severe symptoms, medication can provide some relief, and is often prescribed in conjunction with some form of psychotherapy.

Reasons Teens Develop Mental Health Issues

The adolescent and teenage years are a very common time for mental health issues to arise.  Much research points to factors such as hormonal changes and the brain development that occurs during this period, as putting teens at an increased risk of mental health problems.  Essentially, when so many parts of a person’s neural system are moving and changing, it inevitably leads to changes in mood, behavior, and thinking patterns.

There is also a strong genetic link for some mental health disorders.  If one or both of a teenager’s parents have a mental health issue, then that teen is much more likely to develop one of his or her own as well.  

Additionally, some research points to certain environmental factors as playing a role in a teen’s mental health.  Traumatic events (like a near-death experience), or a history of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), could increase one’s risk of having a mental health disorder.  There are other, less significant factors that contribute to the likelihood of an adolescent or teen struggling with mental health issues, such as stress (perhaps around academic or social pressure, or being bullied).       

How to Help Your Teen with Mental Health Disorders

Educate yourself – learn about the common mental health struggles of adolescents and teens.  Learn the red flags and warning signs so you know what to look out for. Although signs and symptoms may vary, depending on the individual and his or her specific mental health struggle, there are some common warning signs across the board, including:

  • Changes in eating/sleeping patterns
  • Drop in school performance
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Social isolation
  • Unexplained physical ailments (i.e. – stomachaches, headaches, etc.)
  • Low energy
  • Engages in risky and/or destructive behavior
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Excessive secrecy
  • Harms self or others
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide

Detecting a mental illness can be tricky, especially for those who are not trained mental health professionals.  But knowing the warning signs of mental illness in adolescents and teenagers can be the first step in recognizing whether or not your child might need more help.  

Be open and talk about mental illness – mental health is generally thought of in terms of the stigma surrounding it.  But part of breaking that stigma down is being open and talking about mental illness.  It is okay to initiate conversations with your teen about his or her mental health. Do not shy away from asking direct questions.  Don’t be afraid of frank, honest interactions. The more open you can be, the more willing your child may be to share.

Do not judge – your child did not ask for mental health issues, and it is likely he or she wishes they did not.  Even if you do not fully understand, do your best not to judge your child or his/her mental health issues.

Talk to a mental health professional – if you think your adolescent or teen may be struggling with a mental health issue (or you notice some of the above-mentioned warning signs), have him or her evaluated.  Being evaluated by a mental health professional is the first step to getting him or her the necessary support and treatment needed.

Encourage treatment plan follow through – once your child has been evaluated by a mental health professional and a treatment plan has been put into place, encourage him or her to follow through with that plan.  Help around scheduling therapy appointments, or providing transportation are good ways to encourage this follow through, as well as simply reassuring your child if/when treatment becomes difficult.  Remember, it is natural and common for mental health treatment to be somewhat uncomfortable (especially for adolescents and teenagers).

Meet with the school – education is an essential part of your teenager’s development.  If your child is struggling with a mental illness that impacts him or her academically, it may be important to meet with the school to discuss any necessary accommodations.   

Practice self-care – while you likely feel responsible for taking care of your child and making sure he or she is OK, it is just as important for you to take care of yourself.  Practicing regular self-care is a way to manage the inherent stress of having a child with mental health issues and can also allow you to be your “best self” in order to care for your child.  Some helpful ways to practice self-care include:

  • Adequate rest
  • Exercise
  • Socialize
  • Seek your own support

Having a teen with mental health issues is by far one of the most challenging things parents can encounter.  But knowing there is support out there and beginning the healing process can make all the difference. For more information on how Polaris Teen Center can help your family, or to schedule a tour of the facility, please contact our admissions department or call 1-844-836-0222.

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Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).