The teenage years are a difficult time for most adolescents even if they live in a stable and supportive home environment. Not only are teens dealing with the physical changes that entail growing up, but they’re also dealing with many emotional stressors as well. It can be hard for teens to navigate the changing social landscape at school and within their peer group. They may also wrestle with fundamental questions about their core identity, and how their decisions in high school can affect what they will do once they leave the nest. Add in any instability at home or in their personal lives, and teens can quickly become stressed and overwhelmed.
Negative stress not only adversely affects a person’s physical health, but it can also impact someone’s mental health, too. For teens, the tumultuous years between 12 and the early twenties can be incredibly stressful. In teenagers with genetic predispositions or other vulnerabilities to mental health disorders, they can experience a deterioration in their mental health from stress and worry. The impact of stress on mental health is true for adults and people of all ages, genders, and demographics.
Just how prevalent are mental health issues in U.S. teens, and what are the consequences of ignoring poor mental health in the adolescent years? Today’s article will explore the facts and statistics on adolescent mental health, and how parents and guardians can get their teenager the help they need.
What are the most common mental health issues in U.S. teens?
Having a mental health disorder is not a character flaw, a moral failing, or even a choice. Mental health disorders arise because of a unique combination of genetic vulnerabilities, temperament, and environmental stress. Mental health disorder rates occur at similar levels around the globe, in all cultures, and socioeconomic levels. But teens are especially vulnerable to experiencing a mental health disorder because of the stress that is so prevalent in the teen years, and unfortunately, mental illness symptoms can be mistaken for adolescent angst.
Teenagers often don’t realize that what they are feeling and experiencing isn’t a “normal” part of growing up, and it’s up to parents and guardians to recognize mental health symptoms in their teen and get them help for their disorder.
A staggering one in four, or 20%, of U.S. teens have a mental health disorder. School, working a first-time job, and socializing is difficult for teens who do not have mental health issues, but for those that do, these normal parts of growing up can be incredibly difficult. When teens suffer from an untreated mental health issue, not being able to navigate the teen years safely can set them up for significant difficulties as young adults. Leaving mental health issues untreated can make each subsequent episode more intense and harder to treat. Some mental health disorders can also put teens in danger of hurting themselves or of being hurt by others. In 2016, the CDC reported that teenage suicide rates soared 70% between the years 2006 to 2016. The group at highest risk of attempting suicide are young white men between the ages of 14 and 21.
Also, untreated mental health symptoms can be so severe that teens may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms. The most common mental health disorders among teens in the U.S. are:
- Anxiety disorders, with 32% of teens aged 13 to 18 affected.
- Depression, occurring in 13% of 13 to 17-year-olds.
- Eating disorders, occurring in 3% of teens aged 13 to 18.
Teens who experience an untreated mental health disorder are at high risk of turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms. Studies have found that 29% of teens who abuse drugs or alcohol did so after they experienced a major depressive episode, while 14.5% of teens who abused drugs or alcohol did not have depression.
What are the signs and symptoms of mental health issues in teens?
If a parent or a guardian observes the following symptoms in their teen, it could indicate that they are suffering from a serious mental health issue or drug abuse.
- Significant changes in sleeping habits, including excessive sleeping or an inability to sleep.
- Loss of self-esteem and confidence.
- Abandoning their interests in their favorite activities.
- A sudden decline in schoolwork.
- Unexplained anger, irritability, and social withdrawal and isolation from the family.
- Changes in weight and eating habits.
- Changes in personality that are out of character.
- A sudden and swift change in their peer group.
Children with a family history of mental illness and children who witness trauma or experience abuse and instability at home or school are at risk of developing a mental health disorder as a teen. It’s critical that sudden changes in behavior and a decline in schoolwork are not simply dismissed and chalked up to “teenage moodiness.” Early treatment will significantly reduce the impact a mental health disorder can have on a teenager’s life and the lives of their family members.
As if the teenage and young adult years aren’t hard enough, they are also when most mental health disorders show up for the first time. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says 50% of all mental illnesses occur by the age of 14, and 75% occur by age 21. If you’re a young person with questions, the first step to getting help is reaching out to someone you trust. If you’re a parent or loved one, it may be time to let your teen know you are there for them.
What Are the Risk Factors for Teens?
A wide range of factors influences mental health. The more risks like the ones below, the greater the likelihood an illness will develop:
- Gender or sexual orientation issues
- Low income
- Dysfunctional family
- Substance abuse
- Placement in the juvenile justice system
- Medical illnesses or disabilities
- Lack of stability and support
- Peer and media influence
Even if your child has low-risk factors, you may still struggle with questions. Does my son have childhood anxiety? Is my daughter depressed? What can I do now to keep it from getting worse?
How Does Anxiety Affect Children?
Anxiety disorders cause children to become extremely worried or afraid. They also experience changes in their sleep, behavior, mood, and eating habits. Childhood anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), separation anxiety disorder (SAD), and various kinds of phobias.
These disorders usually respond to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy that teaches young people and their families how to respond to real and imagined stressors. Adults learn how to react to children’s fears, and young people know how to examine their concerns and phobias.
Confronting anxiety in childhood may keep the condition from getting worse later in life or contributing to co-occurring disorders like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Is My Daughter or Son Depressed?
Over 1 in 10 children between the ages of 12 and 17 experienced an episode of major depression in 2014. To diagnose someone with major depressive disorder, doctors look for a low mood or lack of interest in things once enjoyed, but teens may have different symptoms. Uncharacteristic irritability, falling grades, or withdrawal from friends may be present.
Besides at least one of the above, a diagnosis of depression requires five of the following seven criteria:
- Disrupted sleep cycle
- Feelings of hopelessness or guilt
- Lack of energy
- Inability to concentrate or complete tasks
- Changes in appetite
- Lack of motivation
- Suicidal thinking
Get Help Now
It’s common for parents to be in denial about mental health disorders at first, but not getting help only worsens matters. Early intervention not only helps everyone feel better, but it can also prevent complications, such as substance use disorder, later in life.
At Mission Harbor Behavioral Health, our team of professionals works with adolescents and adults to address mental health issues and restore feelings of well-being and confidence. Contact us seven days a week for more information.
Updated on 2/4/21
The facilities at Mission Harbor are staffed with trained experts to best assist patients with their mental health issues. We are capable of dealing with any and all cases with a licensed staff, equipment, and approved techniques. Our mission is to help those who want to help themselves, and we support your decision in seeking help.
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