Mental Health Issues for Youth in Crisis

Youth are at risk for many different types of mental health crises. These can include behavioural addictions (to gambling, shopping, or technology), running away, and sexual promiscuity.

Clinicians who work with youth agree the crisis is real. They have been telling POLITICO what they see: a slew of warning signs.

Social isolation

Social isolation can result from a variety of things, including a lack of healthy relationships or a feeling that you don’t belong. Teens that are isolated can have a difficult time dealing with their emotions and feelings. They may not be able to express themselves effectively and may turn to unhealthy ways of coping such as drug use or self-harm.

Loneliness and isolation are not the same thing, but they can go hand-in-hand. Loneliness is an emotional feeling of disconnection whereas isolation is the involuntary absence of regular social interaction. Studies show that loneliness and isolation are associated with mental illness, decreased sleep efficiency, cognitive decline, increased mortality and poor health behaviors like smoking and inactivity (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2022).


Abuse can have long-lasting impacts, whether it’s physical, emotional or psychological. Abuse can take many forms:

It might include slapping, hitting or punching you; making threats of harm to yourself, your family or pets; controlling financial resources; threatening to leave or abandon you; and even sexual exploitation online.

Children and youth with mental health needs can also be affected by abuse. They might seek help for a crisis, but find the system confusing and difficult to navigate. Pediatricians are uniquely positioned to help de-stigmatize mental health care and provide children with the resources they need. They can also connect families to services and support.


Trauma is a term that can apply to many experiences including childhood abuse, auto accidents, sexual assault, natural disasters and war. It can also refer to repeated high-stress or threatening situations that can lead to the development of behavioral health concerns like depression and anxiety.

These kinds of experiences can trigger a fight-or-flight response that changes the way you think and feel about danger and life’s everyday challenges. For some people, these feelings go away after the threat has passed, but for others they linger and interfere with daily functioning. In addition, trauma can increase risk for mental illness and exacerbate symptoms of preexisting disorders.


Depression can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. This can cause children to become irritable, reckless and not care about things that they used to love, such as eating or sleeping. They may also have trouble remembering things.

It’s normal to feel sad or moody sometimes, especially when facing a difficult life event, but if these feelings last for weeks or months and affect everyday living it could be depression. Talking with a trusted adult such as a school counsellor, parent or friend is important.

Psychiatric treatment, such as psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) or medication can also be helpful. It can include behavioural therapy to change negative thoughts and behaviours, and lifestyle changes such as healthy eating and regular exercise.


Addiction is a complex disease that can affect teens in a variety of ways. Teens who develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol lose control over their behavior and often neglect responsibilities, relationships and personal hygiene. They may also engage in risky behaviors to acquire and use the substance.

Teens with substance abuse problems are more likely to be involved in gang activity, criminal activities and even homicide. They are also four times as likely to experience neglect from their parents than their peers in non-substance abuse families. The good news is that early identification and treatment can help. The Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment (EPSDT) benefit on Medicaid and CHIP provides an excellent opportunity to do just that.


Suicide is a major public health issue for youth. Major psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and severe depression have been linked to an increased risk of suicide in teens. For example, a young person suffering from schizophrenia may hear voices telling them to kill themselves (auditory hallucinations), while someone with a severe depressive episode might believe that they will spare their family the pain of their death.

Teens with a strong support network of friends, family and extracurricular activities are less likely to be at risk for considering suicide. A mental health professional should be contacted immediately when a teen has thoughts of suicide or plans for self-harm.