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Mental Illness In Teens: 8 Facts Worth Knowing About Your Teen And Their Mental Health

Updated 30 November 2021 Written by Deborah QuinnMedically Reviewed by Sahar Wahed, RN
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Table of Contents

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How Common Are Mental Health Issues In Teens? 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “Many adolescents experience positive mental health, but an estimated 49.5 percent of adolescents has had a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.”

Nearly half of all adolescents will experience a mental health issue. While this might be alarming, not all mental health problems are chronic or lifelong. With treatment, support, and coping skills, your teen can manage their symptoms of mental illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that some of the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders among youth aged 2-17 include:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression
    • Bipolar disorder
    • Mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Behavior disorders
    • Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia nervosa
    • Substance use disorder
    • Conduct disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

These mental health conditions might occur together, which are known as co-occurring disorders. When mental health disorders co-occur with an alcohol or substance use disorder, your teen has a dual diagnosis.

The prevalence of adolescent mental health issues might be on the rise following the coronavirus pandemic. 

The CDC states that “the pandemic has disrupted many school-based services, increasing the burden on parents, increasing stress on families, and potentially affecting long-term health outcomes for parents and children.”

Being out of school and away from friends might have been challenging for many children and teens. Some teens might not have coped as well as others. As daily life slowly returns to normal, teens might need support to cope with lingering mental health issues. 

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What Are The Warning Signs Of Mental Illness?

The warning signs of mental illness can be identified by changes in behaviors, emotions, and moods.

Teens go through many changes during adolescence. You might assume your teen is dealing with hormones or “just being a moody teenager.” Still, warning signs of mental illness should not be ignored.

According to Youth.gov, the following warning signs might indicate a mental health disorder in your child:

  • Decrease in performance or interest in school and other activities
  • Poor grades despite studying and trying to learn
  • Severe anxiety and worry, which causes avoidance behaviors in your child
  • Physical complaints with no medical cause, like frequent stomach aches and headaches
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Trouble concentrating, which disrupts life at school and home
  • Prolonged negative mood and sadness, which might be a sign of depression
  • Preoccupation with death or suicidal thoughts
  • ​Self-harm, like cutting or burning
  • Alcohol and substance abuse

If you are concerned about your teen, speak to your health care provider. Some of these warning signs could be due to physical health issues or other illnesses. When you notice these signs continuing for a week or longer, your teen might have a mental health issue.

Helping your teen with a mental illness requires prevention and maintenance. Some risk factors, like hereditary causes, cannot be avoided. However, you can help your teen stay mentally healthy with proactive approaches that promote mental wellness.

Understanding the causes of teenage mental illness can help you identify the best approach for your teen’s mental health.

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What Causes Teenage Mental Illness?

Teenage mental illness is caused by many different factors, including genetics, social environment, self-esteem, and traumatic experiences.

Mental health disorders among teens can be caused by similar factors as adults. Often, early warning signs of a future mental health issue in adulthood occur during youth and adolescence.

According to MedlinePlus, “There is no single cause for mental illness,” but “a number of factors can contribute to risk for mental illness,” including:

  • Genetics and family members with mental health or substance use disorders
  • Early childhood trauma and abuse
  • Biological causes, like chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Prenatal exposure to viruses or harmful chemicals, like alcohol, nicotine, or drugs
  • Using drug and alcohol
  • Serious medical issues, like cancer and chronic pain
  • Isolation and loneliness

Some of these risk factors cannot be prevented. For example, when mental illness or substance abuse runs in your family, your child might be at a greater risk of developing these issues.

However, you can prevent issues from worsening over time. Even people at a higher risk due to genetics might not develop a mental health disorder if they take proactive steps.

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How Can I Test My Child’s Mental Health?

You can test your child’s mental health by getting an evaluation by a mental health professional.

Mental health cannot be tested in the same ways as a physical health concern. For example, there is no blood test for depression or anxiety. You can report any warning signs to your health care provider for a mental health evaluation.

You should provide details about your child’s mental health, including:

  • Sleep patterns and appetite
  • Behavioral reports from school
  • Any recent medical issues which could contribute to mental health issues
  • Signs of alcohol or substance abuse
  • Your child’s overall mood, especially noting any extreme shifts in lows and highs
  • How long you’ve noticed your concerns about your child’s mental health

You might want to consult a trusted family doctor first to rule out any potential physical health causes of these issues. Your doctor might recommend an evaluation from a mental health professional to test your child’s mental health.

While professionals can help you begin mental health treatment, you can also take steps to help your teen develop their mental health and wellness. Both professional and at-home support is best to help your teen with their mental health challenges.

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How Do I Help My Teen With Their Mental Health?

There are several ways for you to help your teen with their mental health.

According to Youth.gov, positive mental health development includes “[t]he presence or absence and various combinations of protective and risk factors.” Protective factors can reduce the negative impact of risk factors of mental illness.

Protective factors include things like:

  • Positive social supports and healthy relationships with family members
  • Developing confidence and a healthy self-esteem
  • Problem-solving and coping skills
  • Learning to regulate emotions with breathwork, talk therapy, self-care, and exercise
  • Connections to community, school, sports, family, religion, friends, and culture
  • Structure, routine, and predictability at home
  • Clear boundaries, limits, and behavioral expectations
  • Feeling safe and secure
  • Mentors and positive role models

These protective factors can look different for your child and family. Most will look like everyday activities. You might not realize the impact of these protective factors and might even take them for granted.

You are most likely already doing many of these things for your teen and family without being aware of it; protective factors can be things like:

  • Encouraging your teen to get involved in school, athletics, clubs, volunteering, or outdoor activities
  • Setting curfews with consequences for your child coming home late
  • Creating chores for your child to contribute to the family in maintaining a clean home
  • Family dinners and family fun nights
  • Having a routine for your child after school, like helping with dinner, completing homework, or engaging in healthy hobbies
  • Participating in a church group or other community events

Even if you do things like these, your teen might still develop mental health issues. Sometimes, your child is influenced by factors you cannot control, such as peer pressure, traumatic experiences, and bullying.

When your child develops a mental health or substance use disorder, your whole family can feel affected. Mental health treatment centers can help teens, parents, and families get back on track with healthy routines and protective factors.

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How Do You Know If You Have Bipolar Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), bipolar disorder is “a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and day-to-day functioning.”

Children and teens might have bipolar disorder if they have “get much more excited or much more irritable than other kids” and “[go] through cycles of extreme highs and lows more often than other children.”

The cycles of extreme highs and lows are known as manic and depressive episodes. These episodes can range in severity and length of time. Some people might have longer manic cycles, where others have short manic episodes with long depressive states.

NIMH continues to list potential signs of manic episodes as:

  • Intense happiness or euphoria and “silliness” in children and teens
  • Irritability with a short temper
  • Speaking fast and jumping from topic to topic
  • Difficulty sleeping through the night without getting tired
  • Racing thoughts, making it difficult to focus
  • Overly excited and interested in “pleasurable but risky” behaviors
  • Poor judgment and decision making

Not everyone with bipolar disorder will experience extreme manic cycles. For some, they might have cycles of relatively normal moods mixed with periods of depression. (Note: the signs of a bipolar depressive cycle are similar to depression without a bipolar disorder).

According to NIMH, depressive episodes for teens and children include:

  • Frequent sadness with no apparent cause
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility (which can also occur during manic episodes)
  • Complaints of headaches and stomaches aches, often without a physical cause
  • Sleeping and staying in bed for longer than needed
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and worthlessness
  • Communication problems during friendships and other meaningful relationships
  • Changes in appetite, either eating too much or not enough
  • Lack of interest in preferred activities
  • Low levels of energy
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

Bipolar disorder can have similarities with other mental health and behavioral disorders. For example, kids with ADHD might also have difficulty with their moods and have high energy that can appear like a manic cycle.

With bipolar disorder, the defining characteristic is the cycle. Bipolar cycles can vary from days to months of mania and depression. Often, you will “crash” from a manic cycle into a depressive state afterward. Generally, depressive episodes last longer than manic ones.

Bipolar disorder can also have features of psychosis that might get confused with schizophrenia and vice versa.

Sometimes, intense manic and depressive cycles can include delusions or hallucinations. These symptoms are also present in other disorders, like schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, substance use disorder, or severe depression.

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Which Medicine Is Best For Mental Illness?

The best medicine for mental illness is the one that works best for your teen.

When using mental health medication, you always want to consider the risks and benefits. Your health care provider can help you evaluate the potential side effects your teen might experience.

Psychiatric medication can be part of a comprehensive mental health treatment plan. There is no “magic pill” that will cure your child’s mental illness. However, some medications can ease symptoms or temporarily relieve symptoms as your child learns healthy coping skills.

Depending on your teen’s diagnosis and other factors, one medication might work better than others. In addition, some medicines do not have the same level of effectiveness over time. Your teen might need to try different doses or alternative medications.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental health medications include the following:

  • Anti-depressants
    • Treat mood disorders, like depression and bipolar disorder
    • Can also help with anxiety, pain, and insomnia
    • Some common anti-depressants include:
      • Sertraline (Zoloft)
      • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
      • Citalopram (Celexa)
      • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Anti-anxiety medications
    • Treat anxiety disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and panic disorders
    • Might be used along with an anti-depressant or a beta-blocker to help with other physical symptoms of anxiety (increased heart rate, difficulty sleeping, profuse sweating, etc.)
    • Benzodiazepines are the most commonly used anti-anxiety medications, which include:
      • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
      • Alprazolam (Xanax)
      • Lorazepam (Ativan)
      • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Stimulants
    • Prescription stimulants help kids with ADHD stay alert, pay attention, and focus
    • While stimulants like caffeine might make many people feel hyper, prescription stimulants help to calm kids with ADHD
    • Prescription stimulants include:
      • Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
      • Amphetamine (Eveko, Dyanavel, Adzenys)
      • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
      • Lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse)
      • Combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine called Adderall
  • Antipsychotics
    • These medications help to treat psychosis, which includes hallucinations and delusions
    • Antipsychotics can help your teen manage psychosis resulting from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression
    • Antipsychotic drugs can also be used with other medicines to treat ADHD, anxiety disorders, and other mood disorders
    • Some antipsychotics include:
      • Chlorpromazine (Thorazine)
      • Haloperidol (Haldol)
      • Risperidone (Risperdal)
      • Olanzapine (Zyprexa)
      • Quetiapine (Seroquel)
  • Mood stabilizers
    • Mood stabilizers can help teens with bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, severe depression, and other mood disorders
    • These medications decrease abnormal activity in the brain, and some mood stabilizers also treat seizures
    • Mood stabilizers include:
      • Lithium
      • Valproic acid (Depakote)
      • Carbamazepine (Tegretol)
      • Lamotrigine (Lamictal)
      • Oxcarbazepine (Trileptal)

While many of these medications can be safe and effective for teens, your health care provider can help you find a prescription that works best for your teen. You want to be aware of potential side effects and ensure that the benefits outweigh adverse side effects.

NIMH recommends other forms of mental health treatment before medications like “[p]sychotherapy, family therapy, educational courses, and behavior management techniques can help everyone involved cope with disorders that affect a child’s mental health.”

Whenever psychiatry (using medications to treat mental illness) is used, it is best to monitor symptoms and continue other forms of treatment. 

As your child develops healthy coping skills and other protective factors, your psychiatrist might recommend lower doses or gradually taking your teen off medications. While no prescription is best, your child might benefit from psychiatric drugs for their disorder.

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What Can Happen If Mental Illness Goes Untreated?

Untreated mental illness can lead to future problems with mental, physical, and social wellness.

When your child’s mental illness goes untreated, they might develop worsening symptoms as young adults. Teens with mental illness need to develop healthy coping skills to maintain mental wellness throughout their lifetime.

Mental illnesses can prevent your child from having a high quality of life.

Kids with mental health issues often struggle with socializing, relationships, academics, or developing meaningful activities later in life. Untreated mental health symptoms can drain your teen’s energy or cause uncontrollable thoughts during everyday activities.

When teens are trying to mask their symptoms, they can often feel too depleted to engage in fulfilling activities like most kids their age. They might struggle with making friends, dating, having fun, or building relationships with other family members.

Teens with untreated mental illnesses are at a greater risk of developing an alcohol or substance use disorder. 

Mental health and substance abuse often go together because your teen might use substances to “self-medicate.” According to MentalHealth.gov, “More than one in four adults living with serious mental health problems also has a substance use problem.”

In addition, the CDC states that “the earlier teens start using substances, the greater their chances of continuing to use substances and developing substance use problems later in life.”

Due to the risk of substance use disorders and other lifelong issues, mental health treatment is imperative for your teen’s growth and development. If you notice warning signs of mental illness, speak to your health care provider about treatment options.

Mental health disorders are prevalent among teens and young adults. Comprehensive treatment can help your teen learn to cope with their mental illness. Sandstone Care is here to support teens and young adults with mental health disorders. Call (888) 850-1890.