Many young people experience mental health challenges. In fact, one out of four youth reported having a mental health condition in the past year. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these issues, especially among marginalized youth.
The gravest public health threats to teenagers have shifted from binge drinking, teenage pregnancy and smoking to rising emergency room visits for anxiety and mood disorders and suicide.
It’s not a disorder
Adolescents are at high risk for mental health problems due to their unique experiences, including stressors related to family, friends and school life. Adolescents may also be more susceptible to peer pressure, gender norms and media influences as they explore identity and social relationships. These factors, coupled with biological changes like hormone shifts, can impact a teen’s mood and performance.
Many adolescents describe overlapping symptoms of MH problems; for example, about two-thirds of youth who reported a history of physical or verbal aggression also reported anxiety or depression. These youth are at particular risk of poor long-term outcomes, and may not access the services they need, due to stigma or discrimination.
Pediatricians are uniquely positioned to help address this crisis, with the ability to build trusting, long-term relationships with youth and their families. They also have the opportunity to educate youth about mental health, as well as de-stigmatize the need for care. They can support their patients’ mental health and resilience by encouraging them to talk about how they are feeling with a trusted adult, and provide them with resources.
It’s not a choice
Poor mental health in adolescence can have a wide range of consequences for a young person, including their ability to learn and develop socially and emotionally. It can affect relationships, their ability to make healthy decisions and even lead to thoughts of suicide. These feelings can be particularly troubling for adolescent girls, LGBTQ+ youth, and students across all racial and ethnic groups.
Providing youth mental health services is essential to ensuring that adolescents have the best chance of living healthy, fulfilling lives. These include promotion and prevention interventions that strengthen adolescent’s capacity to regulate emotions, enhance alternatives to risk-taking behaviours and promote supportive relationships. Research supports healthcare systems that integrate mental, primary and social care to support youth.
Many youth have their mental health needs identified for the first time outside of school, often after a mental health crisis has occurred. Typically, these crises are associated with a combination of warning signs, including emotional and behavioral distress, drug use and delinquent behavior.
It’s not a weakness
Adolescence is a crucial time for mental health, and young people who are experiencing mental health difficulties are at a high risk of developing other serious health and social problems. This is especially true for those from marginalised groups such as girls, LGBTQ+ youth and those who have experienced racism.
This is why it’s important to talk openly about mental health and encourage all youth to seek help when they are struggling. A number of initiatives have been developed to improve access to mental health services for children and young people by reducing perceived stigma, improving knowledge about support and help-seeking, and providing more opportunities for young people to talk with professionals.
It’s also important to recognise when a youth is struggling and to listen, not judge, even when they behave badly. If you’re worried about a youth, watch out for changes in their behaviour like a lack of interest in friends or family, trouble sleeping or an increase in arguments and aggression.
It’s not a sign of weakness
Mental health promotion and prevention interventions help youth develop the skills needed to regulate emotions, enhance alternatives to risk-taking behaviours, build resilience to managing difficult situations and adversity and foster supportive social environments. These interventions need to be delivered through varied platforms – for example, digital media, healthcare settings and schools – and tailored to the needs of adolescents.
Youth who have been able to access services and supports reported positive experiences of their interactions with these professionals. They emphasized the importance of having a long-term relationship with their service providers, and of receiving support that is relevant to their specific contexts (e.g., dealing with the pressures of daily life in urban areas).
The Covid-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the need to increase availability and improve the quality of mental health care for young people. Psychologists are a key part of this effort, studying the biological, social and structural contributions to the crisis and developing and disseminating solutions.