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Supporting Adolescent Mental Health: Concerns and Warning Signs

What adult doesn’t remember the roller coaster ride of adolescence … navigating the twists and turns of emotional, physical and social changes? Changes that in one moment could fill you with joy and confidence and at the next turn leave you feeling upside down and insecure. Adolescence is full of challenges, under the best of circumstances, but even more so when mental health concerns are thrown into the mix.

Adolescence is, in fact, a crucial stage in personal and emotional development. At this stage, the brain’s judgment and decision-making abilities are just coming online. The prefrontal cortex, which is the brain’s executive control center, does not even become fully developed until a person is in their mid-20’s. This makes adolescents more impulsive and vulnerable, as they do not have the ability to weigh risks and consequences as an adult might.

During adolescence, it is important for youth to learn how to regulate emotions and manage stress in healthy ways. It is equally important to develop coping, problem solving, and interpersonal skills that will support their emotional and physical well-being throughout life.

Many adolescents experience obstacles to their emotional development due to exposure to poverty, abuse, or violence. This can be a serious concern to their mental health and increase risk for developing mental health conditions. Failure to address mental health conditions during adolescence can lead to lifelong issues, impairing both physical and mental health, and hindering their ability to lead fulfilling lives.


Adolescent Mental Health Concerns and Statistics

Many experts believe that America’s youth is experiencing a mental health crisis. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 36.7% of high school students reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness and/or hopelessness. Alarmingly, the number for girls was much higher at 46.6% and for LGBTQ students it was a staggering 66.3%. Of course, since the pandemic, those numbers have risen even higher. (Center for Disease Control).

• Globally, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among adolescents 15-19 years old. (World Health Organization).
• In the US, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24. (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
• In the US, nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide and 9% have made an attempt to take their lives. (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
• Globally, one in seven adolescents between the ages of 10-19 experiences a mental health disorder. (Center for Disease Control).
• Depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.
• Adolescents with mental health conditions are vulnerable to social exclusion, bullying, discrimination, learning difficulties, risk-taking behaviors, poor physical health and human rights violations.
• Mental health conditions that include symptoms of psychosis (hallucinations or delusions) most commonly emerge in late adolescence or early adulthood.
• Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, commonly emerge during adolescence and young adulthood.
• Behavioral disorders commonly emerge in early adolescence.


Mental Health Warning Signs in Adolescents

Common mental health warning signs and behaviors to look for include:   

• Marked decline in school performance
• Poor grades in school despite their best effort
• Severe worry or anxiety that gets in the way of daily life, such as at school or socializing
• Marked changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
• Extreme difficulties in concentrating that get in the way at school or at home
• Frequent physical complaints or ailments
• Acting out; behaviorally or sexually
• Depression shown by sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude, often accompanied by poor appetite, difficulty sleeping or thoughts of death
• Severe mood swings
• Repeated use of alcohol and/or drugs


How To Support Adolescent Mental Health

As adults – whether that be as a parent, teacher, friend or community member - it is important that we advocate for the safety, security, and development of the adolescents in our lives and provide them with generous amounts of emotional support and guidance.

Provide young people with ample opportunities for safe and open communication, free from judgement … and, really LISTEN.

And, of course, when your level of concern is raised, use your judgement and resources to make sure at-risk youth receive professional help.

Together, we can prepare adolescents for the next ride - Adulthood.


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