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Start Here: A Beginner’s Guide to Common Teen Mental Health Issues

Embark Behavioral Health
May 28, 2021

If you’re a parent with a teen, you’ve probably wondered about their mental health from time to time. Are they doing ok? Happy enough? On social media too much? Too stressed? 

These are the kinds of questions keeping parents around the world up at night. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 10 to 20 percent of adolescents globally experience mental health conditions, yet these remain underdiagnosed and undertreated. 

But if you’re asking these questions, you’re also being an attentive, thoughtful caregiver. Assessing whether or not your child or family might need extra help is an act of love and simply a healthy thing to do. 

“Our minds are just as important as our bodies,” says Dr. Sharnell Myles, Psy.D., LPC, CPCS, CCTP, and vice president at Embark’s Atlanta North program. “If you stub your toe, fall, or feel pain in your stomach, it’s ok to go see a doctor. Your mind is no different.”  

“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.” 

– Dr. Sharnell Myles  

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. 

“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 explained. “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 and become empowered.” 

Second: Get Educated 

Mental health issues are common and complex, and today’s world is shifting how they are 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,” says Myles.  

Myles continued: “For example, the pandemic created complex issues of trauma versus just depression. Some of those issues are now coupled with the fear of death or dying, the actual death of family members, fear of contracting COVID-19, isolation (since kids were pulled immediately out of school with no contingency plan), etc.” 

So what are some of the most common issues facing teens today? Let’s take a look at: 

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 National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)8.7 percent of teens have experienced ADHD during their lifetimes. Unfortunately, about half of teens with ADHD have a severe impairment. Males are more likely to experience ADHD, with a lifetime prevalence of 13 percent, compared to 4.2 percent for females. 

Anxiety 

Anxiety is a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks. According to the NIMH, about 25 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder. 

To make matters worse, healthcare studies over the past few decades have shown that anxiety among teens is increasing at alarming rates, and even more so as we navigate the recent COVID-19 pandemic. 

An important note: Anxiety is different than stress. Anxiety happens when overwhelming levels of stress become unmanageable. 

Depression 

Depression in teens is not a character flaw or sign of weakness. Instead, it is a common mental illness 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. Teenagers tend to keep up with friendships, while adults isolate themselves from their community at large. 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 

Eating disorders often take root in adolescence, when athletic competition, insecurity, low self-esteem, perfectionism, social pressures, and stress are typical.  

Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorders, are serious health conditions that parents should not be ignored. While their signs and symptoms vary based on what’s specifically happening with your child (visit this page for a more thorough breakdown), teens with eating disorders  will often experience: 

  • Constant worry about being overweight, obsessed 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 
  • Insomnia 
  • Irregular menstrual cycles 
  • Obsessed 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  

Substance use, abuse, and dependency in teens are common, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Let’s break down what each one means: 

“Substance use” means consuming any alcohol or drugs, and 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 will experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit. 

Third: Ask for Help 

If you are 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, school counselor, or another experienced professional in your community, and get an opinion from someone with experience. There are many treatment options available, and early intervention is key to preventing issues from worsening. 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of mental health treatment centers, for young people, that is dedicated to reversing the trends of anxiety, depression and suicide by 2028. Our therapists are experts at engaging with teens and helping entire families heal and rebuild.