How to Navigate Teenage Mental Illness

What to Do If You Suspect Your Teen Has a Mental Illness

Mother and son sitting together

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Most parents would never ignore their teen’s broken bone or other obvious signs of physical injury. Yet, when it comes to a teenager’s mental health, symptoms of an existing mental illness can go untreated for months or even years.

Sometimes this lack of treatment is because parents don’t recognize the warning signs of teenage mental illness. Other times, parents might worry that their teen will get labeled as "crazy" if they seek help.

But early intervention and proper treatment are the keys to helping your teen feel better. If you suspect that your teen may have a mental illness, seek professional help right away.

The Danger of Not Getting Help

Sometimes parents struggle to acknowledge the suspicion that their teen may have a mental illness. But ignoring the problem isn’t likely to make it go away. In fact, without treatment, your teenager’s mental health is likely to get worse.

Without proper treatment, your teen may also be tempted to self-medicate. This means that they might reach for drugs, alcohol, food, or other unhealthy habits to help dull their mental pain. Ultimately, self-medicating only adds more problems to your teen’s life versus taking them away.

Untreated mental health issues can also increase your teen’s risk of suicide. Most teens who attempt to kill themselves have a mental health disorder, like depression or bipolar disorder.

Suicide is among the top three causes of death for people between the ages of 15 and 19. Teens who are thinking about taking their own life may give some type of warning sign that they’re feeling helpless and hopeless before making an attempt.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If your teen makes comments about wanting to hurt or kill themselves, take it very seriously. Don’t assume that they are saying those things "to get attention" or "because they're mad." Consider such comments a serious warning sign that your teen is struggling.

Factors Impacting Teen Mental Health

Adolescence is a common time for mental health issues to emerge. This is due to a variety of factors, including those related to growth and development, environment, and stress.

Growth and Development

Hormonal changes and brain development during adolescence may put teens at a higher risk of mental health problems. Some researchers have explained this phenomenon by saying that “moving parts get broken.”

This means that when all the parts of the neural system don’t develop at the correct rate, a teen may experience changes in thinking, mood, and behavior. This can open the door for mental health issues.

There is a genetic link to some mental health conditions. If one or both of a teen’s biological parents has a mental illness, the teen may be at an increased risk of developing one as well.

Environment

Environmental issues can also be a factor in a teenager’s mental health. Traumatic incidents such as a near-death experience or a history of abuse may increase the teen’s risk of developing a mental health condition.

Stress

Stress is another factor in mental illness. If your teen is being bullied at school or puts a lot of pressure on themself to perform well academically, for instance, they may be more susceptible to mental health issues.

Prevalence of Mental Illness in Teens

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 49.5% of adolescents will experience mental illness at some point between the ages of 13 and 18.

The most common mental health disorders in teenagers are:

Teens may also develop psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, or a substance use disorder such as alcohol abuse or opioid dependence.

Warning Signs of Teenage Mental Illness

Distinguishing a mental illness from hormonal changes, teenage phases, and normal mood swings can be a challenge. But it’s important to monitor your teen’s mood and behavior and, if you notice changes that interfere with their daily life, this likely isn’t normal.

Mental illness presents differently in different people. Some warning signs of teenage mental illness include (but are not limited to):

  • Changes in sleep habits: Your teen may complain of insomnia or start taking naps after school. Wanting to be in bed all day or a desire to stay up all night can also be signs of a mental health issue in teens.
  • Loss of interest in usual activities: If your teen quits their favorite activities or shows a lack of interest in spending time with friends, they may be experiencing a mental illness.
  • Major changes in academic performance: Mental health issues often lead to dramatic changes in motivation to do school work. If your teen has lost interest in doing their homework or they suddenly fall behind in school, it could be a sign of a mental health condition.
  • Weight or appetite changes: Skipping meals, hoarding food, and rapid changes in weight could all be signs of an eating disorder. Depression is often characterized by weight changes as well.
  • Extreme moodiness: Excessive anger, unexpected weeping, and high levels of irritability can be a sign of mental illness in teenagers.
  • Increased isolation: A strong desire to be alone or excessive secrecy may also be a sign that a mental health condition might exist.

If You See Warning Signs

If you notice any of these signs in your teenager, it helps to remember that mental health issues are generally very treatable. Additionally, a mental illness doesn’t mean your teen is "crazy." Instead, it simply means that they need attention to their mental health.

Similar to the way some teens develop physical health conditions such as asthma or acne, others develop mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder.

If you suspect mental illness, stay calm but take action. Rather than spend months worrying about a potential problem, commit to finding out if your teen could benefit from mental health treatment.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Their Mental Health

Bringing up concerns about your teen’s mental health may feel uncomfortable at first. But it is important to talk to your teenager about the red flags you’re seeing. Point out your observations and invite your teen’s input. Be careful not to infer that they are ‘crazy’ or that their condition is their fault.

Here are some examples of things you might say:

  • “I see that you are spending more time in your room by yourself and you aren’t going out with your friends. I’m concerned about that.”
  • “I’ve noticed you haven’t been doing much homework lately. I’m wondering if you just haven’t been in the mood to deal with school or if something else is going on.”
  • “You are sleeping a lot more than usual. I wonder if there might be something bothering you or if you’re not feeling like your usual self.”

Don’t be surprised if your teen insists nothing is wrong or becomes irritated by your suggestion. It's not uncommon for teens to feel embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or confused by the symptoms they’re experiencing.

It’s also possible that your teen will feel relieved when you bring up the subject of their mental health. Sometimes teens know they are struggling but aren’t sure how to tell anyone what they’re experiencing. By starting the conversation, you give them the opportunity to share how they feel.

Help Your Teen Identify Trusted People to Talk To

It is important for teens to have adults they can talk to about issues going on in their life—and quite often they're more willing to talk to someone other than their parents. So, in addition to talking to your teen yourself, it is also important to make sure they have other people in their life they can talk with as well.

Help your teen identify at least three trusted adults they might be able to speak with about any problems, concerns, or issues they're having. Ask them: “If you had a problem and you couldn’t talk to me about it, who could you talk to?”

While many teens are happy to talk to their friends, a teen’s peers may lack the wisdom to deal with serious problems. So, it’s best if your teen has older people they can count on as well.

Family friends, relatives, coaches, teachers, guidance counselors, and friends' parents might be among the people they can talk to. Reassure them that it’s okay to bring up problems with people whom you both agree are trustworthy.

This can also be a good time to ask, “Do you think it might be a good idea to have a professional to talk to?” Sometimes they aren’t comfortable asking to see a teen therapist but may welcome the idea if you suggest it first.

Mental Health Evaluation Options for Teens

If your teen’s mental illness is nearing a crisis level, go to your local emergency room to have them evaluated. Threats of suicide, serious self-injury, and hallucinations are just a few reasons to get your teen evaluated immediately.

For mental health concerns that aren’t an immediate crisis, schedule an appointment for your teen with your healthcare provider. Talk to your teen about the appointment the same way you’d discuss an appointment for an earache or a regular check-up.

You might say, “I’ve scheduled a doctor’s appointment for you on Thursday. I know you aren’t concerned about how tired you’ve been lately, but I want to get you checked out just to make sure.”

At the appointment, explain your concerns to the healthcare provider, then give your teen an opportunity to speak directly with them alone. Your teen may talk more openly about how they're feeling if you aren't in the room.

The evaluation may put your mind at ease and assure that your teen is healthy. Or the healthcare provider may recommend that you seek additional treatment from a mental health professional, like an adolescent therapist, to get your teen the help they need to start to feel better mentally and emotionally.

Teenage Mental Illness Treatment Options

If your healthcare provider recommends further assessment, your teen may be referred to a mental health professional. A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, may interview you and your teen to gather more information.

Some mental health professionals provide written questionnaires or other screening tools. Others may gather information from your teen’s healthcare provider as well.

A mental health professional can provide you with an appropriate diagnosis, if applicable. They can also present you with the best treatment options for your teenager's mental health condition, such as by recommending talk therapy or medication.

Seek Support for Yourself

A teen’s mental health affects the entire family. So, it’s important to seek support for yourself if your teen has a mental illness.

Talking to other parents can help you stay mentally strong. Some parents find comfort in gaining emotional support from parents who understand. Others find it helpful to learn about community resources and educational options.

Look for a local support group or talk to your teen’s healthcare provider to learn about programs in your area. You might also find it helpful to research online forums or groups that could offer you help, support, and guidance.

You may even consider meeting with a therapist on your own, without your teen. A mental health professional can help ensure that you’re managing your stress so you can be best equipped to also help your child.

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10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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