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Red Flags: How to Identify Mental Illness in Teenagers

Identifying the signs early is essential

For many concerned parents and family members, it may seem like a daunting task trying to identify mental illness in teenagers. Typical teenage behavior includes moodiness, volatility, boundary pushing, and acting erratically.

However, learning to distinguish between typical and uncharacteristic habits and patterns is the first step in recognizing mental illness in teenagers. Dr. Steven Adelsheim, director of the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing states, “half of all mental health conditions emerge by age 14, and three-quarters by 24.”

Mental illness in teenagers increasing issue

Mental illness in teenagers is a growing issue, as “teen and adult suicide has nearly tripled since the 1940’s, and the rate of 12- to 17-year-olds who struggle with depression rose by 37 percent in a decade.” After you’ve identified your teenager’s typical behaviors, it’s easier to recognize outlier behaviors that could be red flags for a deeper problem. 

Common signs of mental illness in teenagers include:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling extremely sad or low
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Changes in sleeping habits/ low energy or feeling tired
  • Changes in eating habits (overeating or loss of appetite)
  • Difficulty perceiving reality
  • Substance abuse
  • Physical ailments (stomach aches, headaches)
  • Changes in grades and low involvement in school
  • Dramatic in weight
  • Changes in hygiene (no longer showering/ stops caring about appearances)

If you spot any of these behaviors in your child, instead of asking your teen to talk, experts advise, “sharing an activity that will give your child the chance to open up: cook dinner together, walk the dog, take a drive.” Parents should also remain sympathetic to mental illness in teenagers. Avoid phrases like “What’s wrong with you?” and “Snap out of it.”

mental illness in teenagers
“I think my child is struggling, what do I do now?”

Essentially, parents should be checking in on their child’s social media activity and everyday life to see whether there have been any drastic and permanent changes. Don’t look for short-term behavioral changes, such as being upset because of a fight with a friend. Keep an eye out for behavior that lasts for several weeks.

After identification of symptoms, the next step is to seek professional help. If your child is threatening suicide, “take him to the emergency room.” However, if there’s no immediate threat, consult your child’s pediatrician or family doctor. Doctors will be able to provide resources or refer your teenager to a mental health specialist.

Barriers do exist when it comes to the treatment of mental illness in teenagers. Lack of access to proper care is, “one of the most serious problems we have in this country.” Approach the process with patience, call your healthcare provider, and make plenty of phone calls until an in-network professional is found and available. In the meantime, let your child’s school know what’s going on, and be as supportive as possible. 

Learn more about treatment options here.