Adolescents and Youth Health Mental Health Issues

Despite challenges, most youth with mental health issues can successfully navigate their conditions through treatment and community supports and services. These supports can include family and peer support, and access to affordable, culturally competent mental health care.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families had trouble connecting to services. Psychologists are working to help.

Adolescence is a time of growth and change.

Adolescents may experience depression, anxiety or other mental health challenges. These may be temporary, but poor mental health can interfere with their ability to function in school and make decisions about their future. It can also be a risk factor for substance use and suicide.

Some adolescents have greater needs for support and care. They may live in humanitarian and fragile settings; be living with chronic illness, autism or a neurological condition; have been victims of abuse or neglect; or have experienced discrimination. These factors can lead to toxic stress that affects brain development and increases the risk of mental health problems in adolescence and throughout life.

Youth who are mentally healthy are more likely to have better physical health, as well. They are more able to sleep well and are more resilient in the face of difficulties. Having supportive relationships is also critical to their mental health. Programs that build positive environments in schools and communities are important for promoting good mental health.

Adolescence is a time of uncertainty.

As they try on many different selves to find their true identity, adolescents may feel lost and hopeless at times. This is particularly true for youth who experience adversity, such as those living in poverty or in marginalized communities. Those experiences, also called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), can lead to toxic stress that disrupts brain development and increases risk for mental health problems later in life, according to the 2021 advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

While it is normal to feel low or angry from time to time, persistent sadness or a lack of motivation can be signs that you need help. If these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, it is time to talk to a healthcare professional. Getting the right help can make a huge difference for young people. The right care can help them feel more connected to school and family, have better relationships, manage their emotions and take control of their health behaviors.

Adolescence is a time of transition.

Adolescence marks the most extensive cognitive and behavioral changes since infancy. It is a time of growth and development, but it can be difficult to navigate.

Teens with poor mental health may struggle in many areas of their lives, including their ability to get along with others, focus at school or work and make decisions. These problems can lead to drug use, higher risk sexual behaviors and even suicide.

Providing adolescents with the right mental health education can help them learn how to recognize and express their emotions, and develop healthy ways of regulating powerful emotions like anger or fear. They can also learn to bounce back from challenges, such as feeling sad or worried or having a setback at work or school. These skills can help them become more resilient, reducing the likelihood of having mental health problems as adults. It also helps them be more productive members of society. The same prevention strategies that promote mental health—like helping youth feel connected to school and family—also reduce the risk of drugs, violence and teen pregnancies.

Adolescence is a time of change.

Adolescents also begin to see possible future selves, and the choices they make can influence their long-term outcomes. This process often leads to conflict between their actual self and their feared or desired self. This can lead to depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

During this stage, kids are comparing themselves to their peers, dealing with academic pressure and exploring their identity. They are also establishing their independence from parents, making choices without their guidance and seeking out new friendships and influences. They are navigating social changes, sometimes even with a clash of values, and they often don’t have the problem-solving skills of adults.

This is a complex time, but the factors contributing to mental health challenges are rooted in childhood trauma (adverse childhood experiences or ACEs) and in societal forces, including economic stressors. Those factors, especially for adolescents living in humanitarian and fragile settings, or those who are stigmatized, discriminated against or excluded, can put them at higher risk for mental illness.