In most cases, mental health problems are episodic rather than permanent. Many youth respond well to treatment and support services when they are struggling.
Some teens are at high risk for depression, feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. These risks increase during times of stress. They are especially high for LGBQ+ youth, girls and students of color.
Young people who live in poverty, experience domestic abuse, are in care or have been through the youth justice system are at greater risk of developing mental health problems. This includes those who are on low incomes or eligible for free school meals (FSM). Harsh parenting can also be a risk factor for adolescents, especially when it’s combined with other issues such as substance misuse, or sexual and physical risk-taking.
But although some children are at greater risk of having a mental health problem, it doesn’t mean that they will definitely experience it. This is because there are protective factors, which reduce the impact of risk factors. These are personal, family and environmental factors that help a child to cope with challenges. For example, having supportive relationships may reduce the risk of depression, or a strong support network might prevent suicide attempts. These protective factors include social connections, positive outlook on life and hope. They also make it less likely that a child will engage in harmful behaviours, such as self-harm or drug use.
Some signs of mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, often begin during adolescence. These symptoms can impact a teenager’s school and career performance, family relationships, decision-making and health behaviors.
Youth with mental health disorders are more likely to be unhappy at school and have trouble learning. They may have disciplinary problems or be suspended or expelled. They may have difficulty forming friendships or sustaining romantic relationships. They may be at risk for sexually transmitted infections or unintended pregnancy.
Many of these problems are exacerbated by social and economic stressors like discrimination, homelessness, poverty and hunger. They’re also more common in LGBQ+ students and among teens from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Symptoms like depressive or anxious feelings, suicidal thoughts and aggression should be taken seriously. If a teenager can describe their plans for suicide and has access to lethal means, an obstetrician-gynecologist should notify the appropriate authorities. Similarly, anyone who witnesses a teen struggling should seek emergency help for them right away.
From PTSD to depression, mental health challenges can impact every aspect of a youth’s life. Those who are struggling may feel like they can’t cope or find themselves in the criminal justice system.
Psychiatric professionals have long recognized that children and teens face unique emotional stresses. Those concerns can contribute to behavioral problems and lead to negative outcomes, such as substance abuse, that make it difficult to treat the underlying disorder.
A number of different treatment options are available for youths with mental health disorders. However, it’s important to avoid over-medicalization and prioritize non-pharmacological approaches.
Some youths are particularly at risk of mental health issues due to their living conditions, stigma or discrimination and lack of access to quality care and services. These include: adolescents living in humanitarian and fragile settings; adolescents with chronic illness, disabilities or intellectual disabilities; pregnant or adolescent mothers; and adolescents of minority ethnic and/or sexual backgrounds or those who are orphaned.
Parents, caregivers, educators and peers who interact with youth need to recognize the signs of mental illness. This can include a decrease in school performance or trouble staying awake at work or home. They can also show signs of depression or anxiety. It is important to encourage positive behaviors, such as exercising regularly, eating healthfully and getting enough sleep. It is also important to avoid negative activities, such as drug or alcohol abuse and social media overuse.
Preventing the onset of mental health conditions can be done by promoting resilience and supporting family and community support, improving access to screening tools for mental illnesses and strengthening crisis response systems. These strategies can help prevent adolescent suicide, self-harm and substance use disorders.
During the 2022-2023 NGA Chair’s Initiative on Strengthening Youth Mental Health, state representatives joined with leaders from communities and academia for roundtable discussions. These discussion centered on four pillars of the Initiative: