Teen Mental Health

May is Mental Health Month, which makes it a great time to become more informed about mental illnesses. Arming ourselves with the facts can be the first step in reducing our teen’s risks and also in eliminating the stigma around mental illness. Probably the most important things for any parent to know is that mental illness is more common than you think and that these illnesses need to be treated by a professional to be resolved. In today’s blog, we will cover the statistics of the problem, warning signs of teen mental health issues, and how to find help if you think your teen needs it.

Mental Health Statistics and Facts

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 5 American children (ages 3 through 17) have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year. Unfortunately, only 20% of these children are ever diagnosed and receive treatment; 80 percent (approximately 12 million children) are not getting any help. Consider these facts:

  • 50% of all mental illness begins by age 14 and 75% begins by age 24.
  • The average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention and/or treatment is between 8 to 10 years.
  • 70% of teens who commit crimes have a mental illness.
  • Almost half of all students with a mental illness drop out of high school.
  • 90% of teens who kill themselves have an underlying mental illness.


Recent research from CDC indicates that serious depression is worsening in teens. Adolescent girls are increasingly suffering from mental illness. The suicide rate among girls recently reached a 40-year high. Self-harm (a term for self-inflicted injuries, such as cutting oneself) has also surged. Nearly 20% more females, age 10 to 14, have sought emergency room treatment for poisoning, cutting or harming themselves every year since 2009. Poisoning was the method used most often.

Additionally, you should be aware that teens dealing with a mental illness are at a higher risk for developing a drug or alcohol problem. Some teens who are suffering with anxiety or depression turn to alcohol or other drugs as a way to self-medicate or cope. In fact, many adolescents that are battling substance abuse may have an undiagnosed mental illness. When a teen has co-occurring disorders – such as depression and alcohol abuse – he or she needs treatment for each of those illnesses. Just treating the drug dependency will not solve the mental illness, and just treating the mental illness will not solve the drug dependency.

Warning Signs

Now that we know that mental illness is very common, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs to look for. The difficulty is that adolescence is a particularly turbulent time of life, and teenagers are well-known for their moodiness. So, how is a parent supposed to know what is normal teen angst and what is a possible mental illness? Below are some guiding rules, but ultimately, if you are unsure, talk to your pediatrician.

Parents should know that some of the warning signs for mental illness can actually just be normal teen behavior if the behavior lasts for a short period of time. The duration and degree of symptoms is key. For example, the typical teenager who is experiencing depression will not seem sad, they will seem irritated. But many teens seem irritated, so how do you know if they are depressed? Take notice if your teen is experiencing moodiness or irritability for more than two weeks and it’s occurring every day, for most of the day, and if you see a change in sleep patterns and a change in desire to work and socialize.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that you seek professional help if your teen:

  • Is troubled by feeling:
    • very angry or resentful most of the time;
    • very sad, crying or overreacting frequently;
    • worthless or guilty a lot;
    • anxious or worried a lot more than other young people;
    • grief for a long time after a loss or death;
    • extremely fearful – has unexplained fears or more fears than most kids;
    • constantly concerned about physical problems or appearance;
    • frightened that his or her mind is controlled or is out of control.
  • Experiences big changes, for example:
    • loses interest in things usually enjoyed;
    • does much worse in school;
    • has unexplained changes in sleeping or eating habits;
    • avoids friends or family and wants to be alone all the time;
    • daydreams too much and can’t get things done;
    • feels life is too hard to handle or talks about suicide;
    • hears voices that cannot be explained.
  • Is limited by:
    • poor concentration;
    • inability to make decisions;
    • inability to sit still or focus attention;
    • worry about being harmed, hurting others, or about doing something “bad”;
    • the need to wash, clean things, or perform certain routines dozens of times a day;
    • thoughts that race almost too fast to follow;
    • persistent nightmares.
  • Behaves in ways that cause problems, for example:
    • uses alcohol or other drugs;
    • eats large amounts of food and then forces vomiting, abuses laxatives, or takes enemas to avoid weight gain;
    • continues to diet or exercise obsessively although bone-thin;
    • often hurts other people, destroys property, or breaks the law;
    • does things that could be life threatening.


Finding Help

If you do see signs of a problem, take immediate action. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. A teen with a mental health illness can’t just “shake it off” or “stop feeling sorry for themselves.” They need professional help to get better. In fact, if you don’t seek help, your teen’s problems will likely get worse. Early intervention is the key to helping your teen!

The best way to find a mental health provider is to obtain recommendations. Your teen’s pediatrician, your family doctor, or some other local practitioner is the best source for a recommendation. Most psychologists, or other mental health professionals, are happy to meet with parents first to discuss a child’s situation. This is a great way for you to determine if you think this particular doctor is a good fit for your teen. Don’t be afraid to visit a couple of therapists before choosing one.

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