Poor mental health in adolescence can impact multiple aspects of life, from school grades to family relationships and decision making. It can also lead to unhealthy lifestyle choices like substance misuse and higher risk sexual behaviors.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for mental health services was growing among youth. We must address this urgent crisis.
1. Adolescence is a time of growth and development
For many youth, adolescence brings significant changes—to the body and to how a young person sees their place in the world. These changes often cause anxiety and uncertainty, especially in early or middle adolescence, when new connections are forming in the brain.
Many adolescents explore new activities, try out different ways of thinking, and develop relationships that may be risky or dangerous. Some adolescents also experience mental health challenges that can have lasting impacts if not treated well.
Adolescents need access to high-quality, culturally competent, affordable mental health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the need to address youth mental health, but feelings of sadness and hopelessness have been on the rise for more than 10 years. Addressing the mental health needs of young people requires a holistic approach that includes supporting family and community resilience, prioritizing non-pharmacologic approaches, and addressing barriers to care. Despite these challenges, most adolescents who are struggling can improve their mental health with treatment, support services and a supportive environment.
2. Adolescence is a time of vulnerability
Adolescents face many challenges that can lead to mental health problems. These include peer pressure to conform, sexual and gender identity exploration, and stress from academic or family problems. They also have a greater risk for depression and anxiety as they experience the onset of puberty and hormone shifts.
More recently, they have faced additional stressors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, financial issues, and strained relationships. Some are impacted by racial or gender discrimination and social exclusion, while others are at increased risk due to poverty, homelessness, or lack of access to quality health care and supportive services.
The good news is that most adolescents with mental health disorders recover with treatment and a strong support system. This is why it is critical to promote youth mental health and prevent and treat mental illness during adolescence. Mental health promotion and prevention interventions should focus on building self-regulation skills, enhancing alternatives to risk-taking behaviours, and supporting supportive social environments and networks.
3. Adolescence is a time of transition
Teens face many challenges during this time of life, and the impact on their mental health can last long after they reach adulthood. In the 2021 CDC study, almost a third of high school students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless.
Often, teens with a mental illness go undiagnosed and/or untreated. The reasons for this are complex, but stigma, lack of family/social support, low motivation, and limited access to mental health treatment are commonly cited.
During this time, adolescent bodies are going through physical changes, including the hormone shifts that all tweens and teens experience. These changes can trigger anxiety, sadness, anger and other symptoms that should be carefully monitored by a medical professional. They can also cause sleep disturbances and affect a teen’s ability to function in daily activities. It is essential for adolescents to be connected to a supportive environment and to develop protective relationships with their paediatric care providers. This can ensure continuity of care and a smooth transition to adulthood for youth with complex and chronic health needs.
4. Adolescence is a time of growth
Adolescence is a time of growth that includes physical, intellectual, and emotional development. It is a period of experimentation and risk-taking. This can include experimentation with alcohol and drugs, and exploring sexual orientation or gender identity. Adolescents may also experiment with a variety of social and intimate relationships.
During adolescence, adolescents usually begin to establish peer groups that become more important than their family as they seek acceptance and validation for their tentative choices. Peer groups are often same-sex or mixed, and their values and beliefs can differ from those of the teen’s family.
These factors create a perfect storm that puts adolescents at high risk for mental health issues. They are already dealing with stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic, financial worries from economic uncertainty, racial injustice and international strife, gun violence, and natural disasters. And they face these issues at a time when our nation is making unprecedented investments in improving adult mental health, but has made little progress on youth health mental.