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

Mental illness is common during the teen years.
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Most parents would never ignore their child’s broken bone or obvious signs of physical injury. Yet, when it comes to a child’s mental illness, symptoms often go untreated for months or even years.

Some parents don’t recognize the warning signs of a mental illness. Others worry that their child will get labeled as ‘crazy’ if they seek help.

But early intervention and proper treatment is the key to helping your teen feel better.

If you suspect your teen has a mental illness, seek professional help.

The Danger of Not Getting Help

Sometimes, parents struggle to acknowledge their 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 teen’s mental health is likely to get worse.

Without proper treatment, your teen may be tempted to try self-medicating. He may reach for drugs, alcohol, food, or other unhealthy habits that temporarily dull his pain. Ultimately, self-medicating only adds more problems to your teen’s life.

Untreated mental health problems may also increase your teen’s risk of suicide. Most teens who kill themselves have a mood disorder, like depressive or bipolar mood disorder.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24. The vast majority of teens who kill themselves give some type of warning sign that they’re feeling helpless and hopeless first.

If your teen makes comments about wanting to hurt himself or kill himself, take it very seriously. Don’t assume he’s just saying those things ‘to get attention,’ or ‘because he’s mad.’ Consider such comments a serious warning sign that your teen is struggling.

Reasons Teens Develop Mental Health Issues

Adolescence is a common time for mental health issues emerge.

Researchers suspect this is due to a variety of factors. 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, “moving parts get broken.” 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.

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

Environmental issues can also be a factor in a teen’s mental health. Traumatic incidents, like a near-death experience or a history of abuse, may increase your teen’s risk.

Stress can also be a factor. If your teen is being bullied at school or if he puts a lot of pressure on himself to perform well academically, he may be more susceptible to mental health issues.

Prevalence of Mental Illness in Children and Teens

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about 1 in 5 children either have or will have a serious mental health issue at some point in their lives.

The most common mental health disorders found in teenagers are:

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

Look For Warning Signs of Mental Illness

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

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

  • Changes in sleep habits – Your teen may complain of insomnia or she might start taking naps after school. Wanting to stay in bed all day or stay up all night may also be signs of a problem.
  • Loss of interest in usual activities – If your teen quits her favorite activities, or shows a lack of interest in spending time with friends, she may be experiencing a problem.
  • 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 her homework, or she suddenly seems disinterested in school, it could be a sign of a problem.
  • Weight or appetite changes – Skipping meals, hoarding food, and rapid changes in weight could be a sign 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 a mental illness.
  • Increased isolation – A strong desire to be alone or excessive secrecy may be a sign of a problem.

Stay Calm If You See Warning Signs

Mental health issues are usually very treatable. And a problem doesn’t mean your teen is ‘crazy.’ Instead, it means your teen needs medical attention.

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

Stay calm, but take action. Rather than spend months worrying about a potential problem, commit to finding out if your teen could benefit from treatment.

Talk to Your Teen About Your Concerns

Bringing up concerns about your teen’s mental health may feel uncomfortable at first. But, it’s important to talk to your teen about the red flags you’re seeing.

Point out your observations and invite your teen’s input. Be careful not to infer your teen is ‘crazy’ or that it’s his fault. Here are some examples of things you might say:

  • “I notice 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.”
  • “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 he becomes irritated by your suggestion. Many teens are embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or confused by the symptoms they’re experiencing.

It’s possible your teen feel relieved when you bring up the subject as well. Sometimes, teens know they are struggling, but aren’t sure how to anyone what they’re experiencing.

Help Your Teen Identify Trusted People to Talk To

It is important for teens to have healthy adults they can talk to about issues going on in her life—and sometimes, they’re not willing to share everything with their parents. So make sure your teen has other people she can talk to in her life.

Help her identify at least three trusted adults she might be able to talk to about any problems, concerns, or issues she’s having.

Ask, “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 she can count on as well.

Family friends, relatives, coaches, teachers, guidance counselors, and friend’s parents might be among the people she can talk to. Reassure her that it’s OK to bring up problems with those people whom you agree are trustworthy.

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

Get Your Teen Evaluated

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

For mental health concerns that aren’t an immediate crisis, schedule a doctor’s appointment for your teen.

Talk to your teen about the appointment the same way you’d discuss an appointment for an earache or a regular check-up. 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 by the doctor just to make sure.”

Explain your concerns to the doctor and give your teen an opportunity to speak with the doctor alone. Your teen may talk more openly when you’re not present.

The evaluation may put your mind at ease and assure your teen is healthy. Or, the doctor may recommend you seek additional treatment from a mental health professional.

Determine Your Treatment Options

If a doctor 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. A trained mental health professional will likely gather information from your teen’s doctor as well.

A mental health professional can provide you with an appropriate diagnosis (if applicable) and will present you with treatment options, such as 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 too.

Talking to other parents can be key to staying mentally strong. Some parents find comfort in gaining emotional support  from parents who understand, and others find it helpful to learn about community resources and educational options.

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

You might also consider meeting with a therapist on your own. A mental health professional may be able to ensure you’re managing your stress well so you can be best equipped to help your child.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adolescent Health.

National Institute of Mental Health. Any Disorder Among Children

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