Mental Health of Youth

The mental health of youth is the focus of many efforts by psychologists. They are advancing and implementing new treatments and helping families find help.

They are also changing the way we talk about mental illness, such as using the phrase “living with” instead of “suffering from.” But that alone isn’t enough.


Many youths with anxiety disorders do not receive the treatment they need. In addition to long wait times to see a psychologist, there is a shortage of trained providers and a disproportionate lack of access for low-income youths.

Although fear is a normal part of human development, pathological anxiety is excessive and interferes with educational, occupational, or social functioning. Youths with anxiety disorders typically experience restlessness, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms (see Table 1).

Recognizing the hallmark features of anxiety may help clinicians identify youth who need treatment. These include hypervigilance, reactivity to novel or changes in stimuli, hypersensitivity to threat, avoidant coping, somatic complaints, catastrophic reactions, and excessive parent accommodation. The most effective treatment for anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tailored to the disorder, usually lasting 12 to 20 sessions.


Sadly, depression is the leading cause of illness and disability for 10-19 year olds worldwide. Teens with depression often have trouble at school, work, home or in their relationships. They may be irritable or clingy, have difficulty sleeping or eating, have suicidal thoughts, and be withdrawn from friends and activities they normally enjoy.

Encourage young people to talk about how they feel with someone they trust – this could be a parent, teacher, school counsellor or a friend. They can also visit a doctor to learn more about depression and how it’s treated. Psychotherapy is usually used in conjunction with medication to manage symptoms of depression. The most important thing is to help a depressed person seek treatment as soon as possible. This will lead to better health and recovery.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Many children fidget, have trouble sitting still or following instructions, and act impulsively. But when these symptoms interfere with school, work or family life, they may be diagnosed with ADHD.

Symptoms usually start before age 12 and persist throughout childhood and into early adulthood. Those with the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD typically have trouble paying attention and often miss important details or make careless mistakes (e.g., forgets appointments, fails to complete homework assignments or chores, makes poor decisions at work).

Behavioral therapy can help teach parents and children better ways to manage their ADHD symptoms. Some families may choose to use medication to improve their child’s symptoms. This can include stimulants, non-stimulants and herbal supplements. (See the NIH’s Fact Sheet on ADHD). Medications can be effective, but they aren’t a cure.

Bipolar Disorder

People with bipolar disorder experience periods of mania and depression. They may also have episodes of hypomania, a less severe version of mania. People with cyclothymic disorder have cycles of depressive and hypomanic symptoms that aren’t as severe as those in bipolar I.

Teens may be at higher risk for bipolar disorder if they have a family history of the illness, a traumatic event or a substance abuse problem. They might also be at higher risk for developing the illness if they have a psychiatric condition, such as anxiety or ADHD.

Treatment for bipolar disorder can help teens manage their moods and prevent dangerous episodes. There are a range of treatment options, including psychotherapy (talking therapies) and medication. Medications can have side effects that need to be discussed with the doctor before starting them.


Suicide is one of the most common causes of death for youth. Whether it is a teen’s own attempt or thoughts of killing themselves, the loss of life affects everyone.

A teen with suicidal thoughts or behaviors needs help from mental health professionals. Some therapists specialize in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which has been shown to reduce suicide risk for people with borderline personality disorder, a condition that can cause mood swings and impulsive actions.

It is important for parents to keep a scheduled appointment with a mental health professional, even if the teen says they don’t want to go or are feeling better. Attending the visit can help them develop skills to prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The mental health professional can also help them restrict access to weapons and medications that could be used to commit suicide.