Do you remember what being a teenager was like? There’s plenty of physical, hormonal, and emotional changes, not to mention the acne, braces, and body hair. Adolescence isn’t always a great time, but it is an extremely important developmental stage. Most people grow into balanced and mentally healthy adults. There are, however, several mental health disorders that start to develop during or right after adolescence. That’s why prioritizing mental health from a young age is critical to a person’s development and future.
At SABEResPODER, we understand that adolescence is a tough time for teens and their families, which is why we put together this guide to adolescent mental health. You’ll find useful tools that will help support the teen in your life as they grow into a healthy adult. Remember that while this article is a helpful guide, you should always consult a mental health specialist if you have any specific concerns or issues.
What is Mental Health?
Mental health is a fundamental component of your overall health. It’s a state of mental, physical, and social well-being that enables a person to:
- Express emotions and feelings
- Interact with others
- Cope with typical life stress
- Work productively
- Contribute to society
Mental health is determined by multiple biological, psychological, and societal factors. Sometimes mental health and mental illnesses are incorrectly lumped together, but mental health isn’t just the absence of a mental disorder or disability. It’s a mix of physical, mental and social stability, and well-being.
Why is Mental Health so Important in Adolescence?
Adolescence occurs between age 10 to 19, approximately. It’s a transitional period characterized by hormonal, physical, emotional, and social changes with a life-changing impact. In other words, the way in which a teen goes through this developmental stage will have a significant effect on the kind of adult they become.
Good mental health is essential for adolescents to learn and develop the necessary skills needed to thrive in their adult life. Due to all the changes and pressures that teens experience, they can be more vulnerable and predisposed to developing a mental illness.
Developing a mental illness can have severe negative consequences in other areas of life. For example, adolescents with mental illnesses are more likely to suffer from:
- Social exclusion
- Learning difficulties
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Poor physical health
According a WHO report on adolescent mental health, worldwide:
- One in seven adolescents ages 10-19 suffers from a mental illness
- 13% of adolescent deaths are the result of mental illness
- Among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents are depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders
- Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among teens ages 15-19
Overlooking mental health illnesses during adolescence can lead to problems later in life, reducing a person’s chances of leading a healthy, fulfilling adulthood.
Major Mental Illnesses and Disorders in Adolescents
The most commonly experienced mental illnesses by adolescents are: eating disorders (EDs), depression, psychosis, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.
Eating disorders (EDs) are conditions that disrupt healthy eating practices. The most common eating disorders are:
- Anorexia nervosa. People who suffer from anorexia nervosa experience body dysmorphia, which means they have a distorted perception of how they look. They constantly perceive themselves as overweight or obese, even if they’re very thin. They avoid eating and everything they ingest is strictly controlled. People who suffer from this disorder might exercise excessively and also may take laxatives to lose weight. Anorexia tends to occur more in women than in men.
- Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia nervosa is categorized by frequent episodes of binging and purging. After binge eating, a bulimic person employs various methods to avoid weight gain, such as vomiting or taking laxatives. Bulimia tends to occur more in women than in men.
An estimated 4.1 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2020. This number represented 17% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17. Depression is characterized by a feeling of permanent sadness, melancholy, and hopelessness. This emotional state can negatively impact other aspects of a person’s life. It can affect performance at work, relationships with friends and family, and motivation to carry out daily activities. In short, depression diminishes a person's zest for life.
Psychosis is a term used to describe mental illnesses where a person loses contact with reality. These episodes are sometimes called psychotic breaks. During such an episode, thoughts and perceptions are altered, which can lead to difficulties in understanding what’s real and what isn’t.
Schizophrenia is a serious condition that falls under the umbrella of psychotic disorders. It affects the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Schizophrenia is usually diagnosed in adolescence. It is very important to start treatment as early as possible to prevent further deterioration. Symptoms can vary, but generally fall into three categories: psychotic, negative, and cognitive.
- Hallucinations (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling things that are not real)
- Delusions (having strong beliefs that are untrue, irrational, and unprovable)
- Thought disorder (problems organizing ideas and speech; sometimes a person stops talking in the middle of a thought, suddenly changes the subject, or makes up nonsense words)
- Movement disorders (abnormal body movements and repeating them over and over)
- Lack of motivation, interest, or enjoyment of daily activities
- Social withdrawal
- Difficulty displaying emotions
- Problems functioning normally
- Difficulty paying attention
- Inability to concentrate
- Memory problems
Bipolar disorder is categorized by intense mood swings known as manic episodes and depressive episodes. During a manic episode, a person may feel extremely animated, euphoric, or irritable. In some cases, the manic episode may trigger psychotic symptoms where the person loses touch with reality. In contrast, during a depressive episode, a person may feel depressed, sad, indifferent, or hopeless. The symptoms of each episode may last one to two weeks, sometimes longer. These intense mood swings can impair sleep, energy, judgment, behavior, activity level, and the ability to think clearly.
Generalized anxiety disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental illness that affects both men and women. It’s marked by feelings of excessive nervousness and worry. While a person without GAD can live and cope with stress in a controlled manner, someone with GAD feels disproportionate anxiety and unease, which can prevent them from concentrating on their daily activities.
Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder causes intense fear of being watched and judged by others in social situations. For example, everyday events such as meeting new people or day to day interactions with strangers can be frightening and anxiety-inducing. People who suffer from this disorder feel so afraid of being judged, humiliated, and rejected that their ability to work, attend school, or do other daily activities is affected. This can lead to isolation and the development of other mental health illnesses.
Antisocial personality disorder
Antisocial personality disorder is a set of emotional and behavioral problems that manifest in children and adolescents. This illness is characterized by displaying a destructive and defiant attitude, disrespecting others, or not respecting basic social norms. The child or teen who exhibits these behaviors is usually perfectly aware of what they’re doing.
Mental illnesses have various root causes and triggers. However, there are several risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing a mental illness.
Genetics: Family history of mental illness
Hereditary factors play a key important role in mental health. Genes are instructions on how a person's body and brain should develop. For example, they determine what color eyes and hair someone will have. Genes are passed down from generation to generation.
Although there isn’t a single gene that determines whether an adolescent will develop a mental health disorder, there may be inherited genes that affect brain development, increasing or decreasing the likelihood of future mental health problems.
Biology: Brain chemistry or brain damage from severe injury
Any abnormalities that occur in the brain can increase the likelihood of developing a mental illness. In some cases, if a person has suffered a head injury, this can lead to brain damage that can affect their mental health. In other cases, unbalanced brain chemistry and faulty communication between neurons can cause a mental illness to develop.
Underlying chronic illness
There are groups of chronic illnesses that can increase the likelihood of developing poor mental health. For example, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer can negatively affect a person's mood and further predispose them to mental illness.
For instance, a teen diagnosed with depression may also develop a generalized anxiety illness.
The term "comorbidity" is used when someone suffers from two or more disorders or illnesses.
Social determinants of health
The social determinants of health refer to the conditions affecting a person’s health and quality of life: where they’re born; where they grow up, live, play, learn, and work. In other words, they’re social and economic factors that influence a person's mental health.
The social determinants of health are divided into five main groups:
- Financial stability
- Quality and access to health care
- Quality and access to education
- Social life and community
- Home environment
Poverty is one example of how these environmental factors affect mental health. In areas with high poverty rates, adolescents are exposed to high-stress situations which can result in unhealthy social ties that damage their overall mental health.
Alcohol and/or recreational drug use
Using drugs and alcohol can affect areas of the brain and trigger serious mental health problems in adolescents. These substances impact mood, quality of sleep, relationships with others, and physical health.
Traumatic experiences are impactful moments of high stress, danger, or physical or psychological harm. Trauma isn’t the same for everyone. What may be a normal and manageable situation for someone might be traumatic for someone else.
There are many types of traumatic experiences. There are those that represent physical danger, such as going to war or being in a car accident. There are also those generated by situations that provoke a very strong emotional reaction— such as the sudden death of a family member, a divorce, childhood abandonment, or bullying at school.
Habits and lifestyle
As a general rule, taking care of your body and mind is crucial for good mental health. Chronic factors such as poor sleep, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and poor stress management can all play a role in the development of a mental health disorder.
Preventing Mental Illnesses in Adolescence
There are several things you can do to help prevent or mitigate mental illnesses in adolescents:
- Maintain open, honest, and nonjudgmental communication. Demonstrate availability, openness, and empathy. Create spaces where the teen feels safe and heard without being judged.
- Pay attention to sudden behavioral changes. Keep an eye out for possible signs of mental health problems, such as:
- Angry outbursts
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in appetite
- Sudden weight changes
- Problems at school
- Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
These may indicate either a mental health problem or a temporary difficult time. If the signs persist, get worse, or there are simultaneous problems in different areas, a mental health problem might be at play.
How can I promote balanced adolescent mental health?
- Lead by example. You’re the adult. Therefore it’s important to set a good example for your children during childhood and adolescence. Follow the same rules you teach your child and be responsible and consistent. For example, if you want your children to have healthy eating habits, do the same.
- Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Lifestyle habits affect mental health, so encourage your children to lead a healthy lifestyle. Try to foster healthy sleep, hygiene, and habits. You can also play a sport together or pick up a shared hobby. The earlier you encourage these habits, the more they’ll become second nature and the easier they’ll be to sustain in the future.
- Help develop emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognize one’s emotions and those of others, as well as identifying and naming different feelings correctly. Emotional intelligence uses this information to guide thinking and behavior, and then adjust emotions to adapt to the environment accordingly. Some tips for developing emotional intelligence are:
- Keep an open dialogue— help identify emotions and what causes them.
- Listen without judgment, and teach how to do this with others.
- Demonstrate how to overcome adversity and difficult situations.
- Monitor the use of technology. Cell phones, social media, and the internet can present educational and entertainment opportunities. They can also represent a risk. Excessive use of technologies at a young age can be detrimental to mental health. We recommend:
- Setting screen time and social media limits.
- Teaching responsible and respectful use of technology.
- Learning about the platforms your children use and implementing security filters for their devices. If they’re still a minor, you’re responsible for them.
When to seek professional help
Sometimes life situations can cause anxiety, sleeplessness, sadness, or irritation. This is why it’s important to distinguish between a temporary symptom and something more serious. Someone with good mental health will overcome these difficulties eventually. If the signs or symptoms persist, consult a professional for appropriate treatment. Most mental illnesses don’t go away on their own and even worsen over time if overlooked, potentially causing more serious problems in the future.
Keep an Eye on Mental Health!
Cultivating good mental health during adolescence is key to achieving a fulfilling adulthood. We hope this guide provided you with information to guide the teens in your life as they grow up. Remember, SABEResPODER! By educating yourself on mental illnesses and other adolescent difficulties, you can promote a healthy and happy journey into adulthood.
If you have questions about this or other topics, contact our experts through our chat. We’re here to help.
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