Adolescence — a time that starts at puberty and can stretch to age 20 or later — is a period when problems ranging from anxiety and depression to mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia tend to emerge.
Psychologists are investigating the reasons behind these disturbing trends, and seeking solutions that can make a difference in adolescents’ lives.
Preventing Mental Health Problems
A wide variety of psychological interventions can help prevent mental health problems in youth. These include teaching people how to cope with stress and anxiety, and encouraging them to eat well and get enough sleep. Other preventive measures include avoiding alcohol and drugs, as well as practicing relaxation and mindfulness techniques.
Psychologists have made significant progress in reforming youth mental health services to include prevention and early intervention strategies. In parallel, they are developing and improving integrated youth mental healthcare models that integrate different specialized professional groups.
Preventive efforts target adolescents who are at higher risk of mental health conditions due to their living conditions, stigma and discrimination or exclusion from quality care. These include those in humanitarian and fragile settings; adolescents with chronic illness, autism spectrum disorders, or intellectual disabilities; pregnant adolescents and those who are adolescent parents; and those who are from minority ethnic or sexual backgrounds or are orphans. Many of these young people experience overlapping symptoms of mental health disorders, such as a combination of anxiety or depression and physical or verbal aggression or delinquent behavior.
Identifying Mental Health Problems
It is challenging to tell when adolescent behavior is a sign of a mental health problem. Many of the early warning signs of mental illness look like normal teen angst and risk-taking behaviors.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that if your child or teenager is acting oddly, it could be a sign of a mental health problem. It is also important to know that mental health problems can be treated just as we would treat a broken bone or serious infection.
Teen mental health problems impact all areas of life including mood, relationships, school and grades, decision making, and physical health. They can lead to substance use, eating disorders, and self-harm. CDC data shows that many teens feel persistently sad or hopeless, and more than one in three seriously considered suicide during their adolescence. This is even higher for lgbtq+ youth, female students, and students across racial and ethnic groups. These feelings affect their ability to develop into healthy adults.
Many mental health problems can be treated with individual, group or family therapy. Psychologists are working to help develop new treatment options and improve access to care for vulnerable youth. They also work to provide education about mental health problems and how to recognize them in children and teens.
Most of the time, these encounters with MH professionals occurred in schools, and were triggered by either poor behavior (e.g., fighting, failing to show up for school) or when youth were at risk of being taken into the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Youth peer advocates are helping to address this issue by training young people to be a part of MH care teams.
Other treatments include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which is a type of talk therapy that helps kids and teens learn how to change negative or unrealistic thoughts into more positive ones. Another is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) which teaches skills for changing behaviors and improving relationships.
Adolescence is a time of emotional ups and downs, and it’s normal for teens to have mental health problems at some point. But it’s important to know that effective treatment is available.
Youths with mental illness can recover, and many do. They need to learn how to cope with their symptoms, and they need to be taught how to seek help. They also need to be taught to avoid using drugs or alcohol.
A consumer empowerment approach, which emphasizes a person-centered, age-appropriate approach and supports engagement in recovery activities may be especially useful for youth. In addition, a person-centered, age-appropriate and culturally sensitive approach may facilitate relationships with clinicians and increase youth’s willingness to participate in treatment. This is particularly important given that adolescents often have negative attitudes about mental illness and discriminate against peers with mental health conditions (49). Educating youths on medications, their side effects and how to use them may also improve their ability to engage in treatment.