Mental health in adolescents refers to their emotional and psychological well-being. It also includes how they interact with others and build social relationships. Adolescent mental health should be a priority for families, schools, and society as problems continue to rise.
A Harvard report claims the United States is in the middle of an adolescent mental health crisis following the pandemic, which took away factors that create positive mental health in teens. Teens were stuck at home, isolated from the world, worried about financial instability due to a parent losing a job, and fearful a disease could take the life of a loved one.
While things are somewhat returning to “normal,” adolescent mental health still suffers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released findings from a study of the year after the pandemic on teen mental health:
- Nearly 20% of teen respondents considered suicide, and 9% attempted suicide.
- Out of high school respondents, 73% of teens reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) or trauma during the pandemic.
- Researchers found that teens having one or more ACEs were still experiencing negative mental health symptoms more than a year later.
What About Adolescent Mental Health Today?
Mental Health America’s 2022 Youth Data Report presents alarming statistics about the mental health of adolescents today compared to 2021, including the following:
- Major depressive disorder among teens increased by 306,000
- Severe depressive disorder among teens grew by 197,000
- Over 4% of youth have a substance use disorder
- More than 60% of teens with major depressive disorder did not receive treatment
The CDC reports that teens struggle with various mental health disorders, including anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and adolescent substance abuse. Many teens experience co-occurring conditions, meaning they have simultaneous mental health problems. For example, 74% with depression also have anxiety.
With the number of teens with mental illness on the rise, now is the time for everyone to focus on finding ways to improve adolescent mental health. You can start by gaining crucial knowledge, like the facts below.
Risk Factors of Adolescent Mental Health Struggles
There isn’t a single cause for depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. Instead, you want to understand the risk factors that make a teen more likely to develop a mental health disorder. Risk factors include the following:
- Genetics (family history of mental illness)
- Brain chemistry (chemical imbalances)
- Early puberty
- Past traumatic experiences (abuse of any kind)
- Current living environment
- Current influencers and their lifestyle
- Drug or alcohol misuse
- Physical health problems (e.g., head injury, chronic disease)
- Low self-esteem
- Poor social skills
Signs of Adolescent Mental Health Struggles
No matter your role in a teen’s life, you must know the behaviors that signal a mental health problem. The sooner you notice, the sooner they can receive treatment. Early warning signs to watch out for include the following:
- Disturbances in sleep (sleeping too much or too little)
- Changes in eating habits (over or under-eating)
- Changes in friend groups
- Drop in grades
- Having aches and pains for no apparent reason
- Wanting to isolate from friends and family
- Arguing with friends and family
- Lack of personal hygiene
- Making doom and gloom comments, possibly about suicide
- Lack of energy, motivation, enthusiasm, or interest
- Mood swings that can be rapid and unexpected
- Tearfulness, crying, nervousness, or outbursts for no apparent reason
- Drug and alcohol misuse
If you detect even one of these in an adolescent, you must take the next step of getting them help. Help can mean many different things, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment model. The overall goal is to outnumber their risk factors with protective factors.
Protective Factors of Adolescent Mental Health
Protective factors are the positive things in a teen’s life that support good mental health. Examples of protective factors include:
- High self-esteem
- Good physical health
- Positive role models
- Is successful in school
- Has good social skills
- Engages in positive activities (work, church, clubs, sports, etc.)
- Has healthy coping skills
- Healthy living environment
- Healthy relationships with family and friends
- Gets quality sleep
- Feels supported by family, friends, teachers, coaches, etc.
- Has access to mental health treatment and community supports
- Spiritual connection
- Healthy eating and exercise habits
Teenagers are not going to have all these protective factors, and they don’t need all of them to improve their mental health. They do enough to outweigh the risk factors, however. You can help them build protective factors.
Helping Adolescents Improve Mental Health
One of the most critical steps in helping an adolescent struggling with mental health issues is to realize you alone cannot fix them. For some, mental illness is a biological issue that requires the help of a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication. For others, mental health issues occur due to abuse.
To help an adolescent all by yourself, you need to be a psychologist, family therapist, psychiatrist, peer, parent, sibling, and much more. It’s impossible. Therefore, you must move to plan B, which involves helping adolescents get to the people who can truly help them.
Below is a brief list of actions you can take to get someone the help they need:
- Provide support and encouragement. You can do this by offering to go with them to counseling, share your experiences with mental health, or introduce them to someone successful in getting mental health treatment to discuss the benefits.
- Be a good role model by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, accessing community support, having a positive attitude, avoiding alcohol and drugs, getting quality sleep, meeting with a counselor, and so on.
- Help them join a peer support group at the local mental health center.
- Take on a new project that promotes positive mental health. You can start exercising together, join a book club, and attend family counseling.
- Limit online social activities, like chatting with friends or scrolling profiles. Research shows these behaviors increase depression and anxiety.
- Help them feel safe and secure, valued, and loved.
You can make a difference in a teen’s life. Reach out for more information and support. Your mental health is important too.