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5 Common Mental Health Disorders Among Teens

common mental illnesses adolescents

Often, when we think about adolescence and young adulthood, we think about “easier” times. For parents, it’s easy to assume that our teenagers are carefree, living life, and have no worries in the world. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Mental health disorders are becoming increasingly common in teens—and COVID-19 has contributed to rising trends. In fact, in the first eight months of the pandemic, mental health emergencies among 12-to-17-year-olds rose by 31 percent

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that most mental health conditions – approximately 75 percent – begin by age 24. However, at least half of mental illnesses begin by age 14, right as children become teenagers. As a parent, it is important to be aware about potential mental health disorders. It is also important to know that you are not alone. Statistics show that mental health disorders are common in youth, with more than 1 in 6 youth (ages 6 to 17) experiencing a mental illness every year. Below we outline some of the more common mental health disorders among teens and young adults, to help you become educated and better help your teen.

  1. Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health disorder among adolescents today. The World Health Organization reports that four percent of 10-14 year-olds, and five percent of 15-19 year-olds experienced an anxiety disorder. Most people develop symptoms of an anxiety disorder before age 21.

Anxiety disorders are not simply isolated feelings of anxiety – they affect one’s day to day living. They are characterized by persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening. In teens, anxiety might show as:

  • Constant feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Anticipation of the worst possible outcomes
  • Racing heartbeat and shortness of breath
  • Upset stomach and fatigue
  • Insomnia or frequent trouble sleeping
  • Feeling tense of jumpy

There are different types of anxiety disorders, so it is important to meet with your clinician if you suspect this mental health condition is arising in your teen. Anxiety disorders may fall into the category of a phobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, or generalized anxiety disorder. It is recommended that professional treatment is sought out for any of the above, particularly in teenagers. Teens’ brains are still in development, so it is important to treat mental health conditions as early as they are detected.

  1. Depression

Depression is the second most common mental health disorder in adolescents, affecting three percent of 15 to 19 year-olds globally. In the United States, however, approximately 13 percent of youth (ages 12 to 17) suffered a major depressive episode in the year 2020. Nine percent of youth in the U.S., or 2.2 million, were coping with severe major depression in the year 2020.

Depression is a disorder that involves recurrent, severe periods of negative mood changes, thought processes, and motivation. Teens and young adults battling depression often feel hopeless, lonely, and lacking energy or motivation. Common signs of depression include:

  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of energy and motivation
  • Lack of interest in activities/friendships
  • Hopelessness 
  • Physical aches, pains, and general ailments
  • Suicidal thoughts

Depression can affect school attendance, relationships, and general performance for adolescents. Particularly in recent years due to COVID-19, social withdrawal can create isolation and exacerbate symptoms of depression in teenagers. It is important for parents to act on any symptoms of depression, and to help their teen to see a professional. Left untreated, depression can persist into adulthood and/or lead to issues with substance abuse and thoughts of suicide.

  1. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is very common among adolescents, and is typically identified early due to this condition’s effects on learning and behavior. Almost nine percent of children ages 4 to 17 are estimated to be facing ADHD today. These children may have difficulty paying attention, become easily distracted, and exhibit hyperactive and/or impulsive behaviors.

Common signs of ADHD in children and teenagers include:

  • Jumping from activity to activity
  • Becoming bored with a task quickly and easily
  • Difficulty focusing on a task or paying attention to others
  • Trouble completing schoolwork 
  • Difficulty processing information quickly
  • Trouble sitting still for a period of time
  • Touching or playing with everything
  • Acting without regard for consequences
  • Talking a lot and interrupting others

ADHD affects a child’s ability to learn and often requires creativity in classroom and home environments. Therefore, recognizing and treating this disorder can be integral for your teen’s future success. Additionally, it is important for parents to know that about two-thirds of children with ADHD also face another condition. These may include a learning disability, conduct disorder, or another mental health condition like anxiety or depression. For those with co-occurring or multiple mental health disorders, integrated dual diagnosis treatment is recommended.

  1. Eating Disorders

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, eating disorders are “much more common” during the teenage years and into one’s early 20s. While girls and young women are more likely to struggle with an eating disorder, it’s important to recognize that boys and men often go undiagnosed.

There are different types of eating disorders, some of the most common being anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Anorexia is characterized by self-starvation in order to lose weight. Teens who are struggling with anorexia will deny hunger, refuse to eat, and often exercise to the point of exhaustion. They may also practice purging, which is also common among those with bulimia. Bulimia is exhibited by eating very large amounts of food, and then forcing vomiting to rid themselves of the calorie intake. Binge eating disorder (BED), meanwhile, shows symptoms of excessive eating – in large portions, over a short period of time – which causes feelings of self-disgust, depression, and shame. Those with BED do not purge like those with bulimia do.

Because eating disorders involve abnormal eating behavior, they come with risks of nutrition deficiencies, obesity, and premature death, though this varies by the specific disorder. Anorexia nervosa, for example, has a higher mortality rate than any other mental disorder. It is critical, therefore, that early intervention is in place for youth struggling.

  1. Substance Use Disorders

Adolescence is a heightened period for risk-taking, and often that translates to teens trying drugs and alcohol for the first time. Unfortunately, however, this is not always a phase or experimentation. Many teens and young adults become addicted to drugs or alcohol and develop substance use disorders. In the year 2020, over four percent of youth in America reported having a substance use disorder. 

There are many different types of substance use disorders, depending on a person’s drug of choice. The symptoms of a substance use disorder can also overlap with other mental health disorders. However, common signs of substance use disorder in teenagers can include:

  • Withdrawal from family or friends
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Engaging in more risky behaviors, such as sex, fights, driving under the influence
  • Developing a high tolerance to drugs and alcohol
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drunk or high
  • Feeling like they need a substance in order to properly function

It’s important for parents to know substance use and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety often co-occur. This is called co-occurring disorders. In 2020, an estimated 17 million Americans experienced both a mental illness and a substance use disorder. If a person is struggling with a mental health disorder like depression, they are roughly twice more likely to develop a substance use disorder as well.

Finding Treatment for Mental Health Disorders in Teens

If you have a teen struggling with a mental health condition – whether that be depression, an eating disorder, or even prescription drug abuse – it is critical to find a professional who can help. Untreated mental health conditions can lead to an increased risk of suicide, substance addiction, violence, unsafe behaviors, and worsened mental illness into adulthood. For this reason, early intervention is essential for teens’ long-term mental, emotional, and physical health.

Turnbridge is a recognized provider of mental health and substance use disorder treatment for adolescents and young adults struggling. You can learn about our range of programs here, or contact us at 877-581-1793 to learn more.