How to Recognize Mental Health Issues in Youth

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“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.” – Glenn Close

A staggering number of youth experience mental health issues in the United States according to the CDC; 1 in 5 teens between 12 and 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. That is 20% of the population of young people who struggle with mental illness yet only about 85% of those in need receive treatment.

During this critical time in their lives when they are transitioning from childhood to adulthood, a teen’s brain is extremely vulnerable to depression, anxiety, personality disorders, substance abuse disorders, and many other life-changing issues. As hormones flood their bodies and they try to comprehend the world around them, some may struggle to understand their thoughts and behaviors as feelings of self-doubt and even shame push them deeper into their disorder.

While it may be incomprehensible that such a large number of teens suffer from mental health issues, it is the number of those who do not receive treatment that is more astounding and which begs the question, “why?”. Some may find it difficult to put into words the thoughts and emotions that are raging through their minds. Others may believe that they can handle it on their own or may be in denial of its existence. Maybe they are unsure if they can trust others with their deepest thoughts or are fearful that they may be labeled because of their mental health issues.

No matter the rationale for not seeking help for the challenges that they are faced with, not getting the help that they need is detrimental to the health and overall well-being of a teen. Without treatment, teens experience an increased risk of substance abuse, risk-taking behaviors, poor academic performance, deterioration of relationships, self-harm, and unfortunately, suicide.

Mental health issues in teens do not simply go away on their own as some may hope or think. Teens who are experiencing signs and symptoms of mental illness should seek medical help from trained mental health professionals like those at Beachside Treatment Center. It is the responsibility of parents and caregivers to encourage teens to get help even if they are reluctant. Look at the big picture! Although teens may be hesitant to get the help that they so desperately need out of fear of condemnation or shame, they must understand that their life and overall health are at stake.

So, the question is, how do you recognize mental health issues in youth to get them the help that they need? While a teen may not run to their parents shouting from the rooftop “I have a mental health issue”, there are many other signs and symptoms that may indicate that a teen is experiencing a challenge.

As children grow and develop, it may be difficult to determine when a behavior is indicative of a mental health issue or purely the result of “normal” teenage behavior. Are the mood swings typical for teens of this age or is something more sinister lurking? Why is my teen suddenly avoiding things he once loved? Why is she so focused on her appearance and how others see her? These are all typical questions that any parent or caregiver may ask as they witness the transformation from childhood to adulthood. Every teen handles the changes going on within their bodies differently and the word “normal” can be used very loosely to define behavior in adolescents. However, it is when changes to their behavior begin to impact their life that there should be cause for concern.

Symptoms to watch for

No one knows your child better than you do. You have seen the mood swings, witnessed the tantrums, and stopped the tears. You know whether they are shy and reserved or outspoken and adventurous. Are they typically happy or melancholy? Having seen and experienced your child’s usual behaviors, it may seem out of the ordinary if they are suddenly displaying something that is the polar opposite. Although this one thing alone may not be an indicator of mental health issues, it is certainly something to keep an eye out for in combination with other recognizable symptoms.

Some teens may experience physical symptoms of mental health issues such as frequent headaches, stomach aches, or body and joint pain. Your teen’s pediatrician can help determine if the sudden onset of physical ailments is related to mental health or a medical condition.

If you notice that your usually very social, friendly, outgoing teen no longer wants to see friends or socialize, this may be a sign of a mental health issue. Teens relationships can be very touch and go with friendships falling to the wayside at any moment. However, avoiding interactions all together is not part of “normal” teen behavior.

Your beautiful, confident, self-empowered daughter now appears to be skeptical of her self-worth, questions her value, and cares exorbitantly about her appearance and how others see her. What changed? She is the same person yet somehow the image that she sees in the mirror is distorted and no longer appealing to her. A mental health issue may be dissolving her self-esteem and confidence.

Your responsible, respectful teen is now disrespectful of authority, defies laws and rules, and takes unnecessary risks. Is he spreading his wings trying to understand where he fits in the world or this a sign that he is experiencing a mental health crisis?

Of course, teenagers need to sleep. Their busy schedules, eagerness to fit in and study habits may prevent them from getting enough sleep regularly. Is your teen unexpectedly sleeping more than usual? Maybe they suddenly find it difficult to calm their brains and put the day’s activities to rest. Sleep is elusive although they are desperate for it. Changes in sleep patterns may be a sign that a teen’s brain is struggling with a mental health disorder.

The teenage years are confusing, challenging, and raise a teen’s anxiety by their very nature. They are stuck between still being a child and the desire to become an adult. They may be nervous, anxious, and confused. However, when every day stresses become anxiety, stress, and avoidance, a teen may be experiencing more than external factors. Feelings of fear, terror, and a heightened sense of worry may indicate that your teen is experiencing more than the normal challenges of adolescence.

Your teenager suddenly avoids mealtime, quickly leaves the table after finishing and heads to the bathroom, or is overly concerned with calories and fat. Although he has always been mindful of healthy eating, he now seems to have radical thoughts about weight gain, health, and appearance. This change may be a symptom of a mental health issue that is unrelated to health consciousness.

While many teens are curious about drugs and alcohol, use and abuse may be signs of a deeper, more menacing mental health issue. If you find drug paraphernalia or alcohol in your child’s possession, this is a good reason for concern for their mental state.

Aggression, extreme sadness, persistent irritability, frequent fidgeting, nightmares, constant worry, disobedience. This list is not meant to be alarming but help parents and caregivers to recognize mental health issues in teens to proactively seek help when necessary. Each mental health issue may bring with it its own unique set of symptoms and behaviors but it is important to understand that any changes which are sudden, erratic, and unusual should be cause for concern.

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The information provided herein is by no means an exhaustive list of signs and symptoms of mental health issues. While each should be taken seriously when noticed alone, when several out of the ordinary behaviors are noticed, parents and caregivers should take immediate action to get the teen the help that they need. Unfortunately, too many teens who are experiencing challenges with their mental health are left to fend for themselves and their future is cut short and their lives end tragically. While changes in behavior may be difficult to spot, early identification, diagnosis, and treatment can be the difference in helping a teen to reach their full potential and to live a happy, satisfying life.

Although it may be difficult, uncomfortable, and challenging for teens and their families to admit and seek treatment for mental health issues, it is a matter of life and death. If you suspect that your teen is experiencing mental health issues, reach out to their pediatrician for an evaluation and further discussion about their symptoms to rule out any medical conditions that may be the cause and to seek further treatment if necessary. The trained mental health professionals at Beachside Treatment Center can help you to identify the best possible treatment plan to get your teen on the road to recovery.