Start Here: A Beginner’s Guide to Common Teen Mental Health Issues
If you’re a parent with a teen, you’ve probably wondered about their mental health — and mental health issues — from time to time. Are they doing OK? Experiencing mental health challenges? Happy enough? On social media too much? Too stressed?
These are the kinds of questions keeping parents around the world up at night, and with good reason. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 14% of youths ages 10-19 experience mental health conditions that are largely unrecognized and untreated.
If you’re one of the parents asking questions about your teen’s emotional well-being, you’re being an attentive, thoughtful caregiver. Assessing whether your child or family might need extra help is an act of love and simply a healthy thing to do.
“If you stub your toe, fall, or feel pain in your stomach, it’s OK to go see a doctor. Your mental health is no different,” said Sharnell Myles, vice president at the Embark Behavioral Health outpatient treatment program in Alpharetta, Georgia.
“If you feel sad, if you’re experiencing something uncomfortable or unusual, it’s OK to reach out to a professional. Everyone experiences something in life where we need someone to talk to.”
As you consider your teen’s mental health challenges and whether they need help, here are three things to keep in mind.
Table of contents
First: Say Goodbye to Stigma
Today, therapy, coaching, and counseling services have less stigma than they did in the past. But some people are still hesitant about reaching out for help to address mental health issues.
“You don’t have to be ashamed. Most professionals have experienced similar or the same issues, and we need someone to speak to as well,” Myles said. “I’ve experienced trauma growing up, and now I’m a trauma specialist because I was able to realize something wasn’t right.
“Be unafraid. Empower yourself.”
Second: Get Educated On Common Mental Health Issues
Mental health challenges are common and complex, and today’s world is shifting how they’re perceived and treated.
“Over the past five years, we’ve seen a shift in the mental health issues teens have to deal with. We’ve always had to address issues of depression, anxiety, and suicide* in teens, but with the pandemic, it’s uncovered a different layer and added more complexity,” Myles said.
Myles explained that, for example, the pandemic created complex issues of trauma versus just depression. She noted that some of those mental health issues were coupled with the fear of death or dying, the death of family members, fear of contracting COVID-19, and isolation, as teens were suddenly learning remotely at home instead of being at school with their friends and peers.
So, what are some of the most common issues facing teens today? Let’s take a look at:
- Eating disorders.
- Substance use.
- Lack of self-worth.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
ADHD in teenagers can be concerning because those who experience difficulty with hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention may struggle with learning disabilities, low-self esteem, schoolwork, and social skills problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using data from 2016-2019, 13% of youths ages 12-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD — and boys have been more likely to have the disorder. The CDC shared that from 2016-2019, 13% of boys were diagnosed with ADHD compared to 6% of girls.
Anxiety is a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, anxiety was the most common mental health issue for children ages 3-17 from 2018-2019.
To make matters worse, health care studies over the past few decades have shown that anxiety among teens is increasing at alarming rates, and even more so due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
An important note: Anxiety is different than stress. Anxiety happens when overwhelming levels of stress become unmanageable.
Depression in teens is not a character flaw or sign of weakness. Instead, it is a common mental health challenge that goes beyond lethargy and sadness to have a negative impact on teens’ daily lives. Teens with depression may experience difficulty concentrating, eating, managing schoolwork, sleeping, withdrawing from social activities, and becoming socially isolated.
Depression looks different in teens than in adults. Teenagers tend to keep up with friendships, while adults isolate themselves from their community at large — although depressed teens can also isolate themselves. Many teens with depression, especially those who are overachievers, may become extremely sensitive to criticism or rejection and become angry with others when any criticism is expressed.
Depressed teens also often complain of unexplained aches and pains like headaches or stomachaches, even when a physical exam shows no medical cause.
Eating disorders often take root in adolescence, when athletic competition, insecurity, low self-esteem, perfectionism, social pressures, identity formation, and stress are typical.
Anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorders are serious health conditions that parents should not ignore. While the signs and symptoms vary based on what’s specifically happening with your child, teens with eating disorders will often experience:
- Constant worry about being overweight.
- Obsession with losing weight.
- Dental cavities.
- Eating in secret.
- Eating large amounts of high-fat foods and sweets.
- Eating more food at a meal than is considered the norm.
- Excessive exercise.
- Irregular menstrual cycles.
- Obsession with celebrities’ body shapes and wanting to look like them.
- Showing disgust at their eating habits.
- Skipping meals.
- Using diuretics and/or laxatives.
- Visiting the bathroom soon after each meal.
Substance use, abuse, and dependency in teens are common, according to the CDC. Let’s break down what each one means:
- Substance use means consuming any alcohol or drugs. It may not be a problem or lead to abuse or dependency.
- Substance abuse means the continued use of alcohol or drugs even when it causes problems in a teen’s life (like at home or school).
- Substance dependency is an addiction to alcohol or drugs, rendering your child unable to stop drinking or using drugs. They’ll experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit.
Third: Ask for Help
If you’re concerned that your child may be experiencing mental health challenges, don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask for help. Start with your child’s primary care physician, a school counselor, or a therapist. There are many treatment options available, and early intervention is key to preventing mental health issues from worsening.
*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your teen is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 ─ the Crisis Text Line ─ from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!