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The Top Risk Factors for Mental Illness in Youth

risk factors for mental health disorders

Mental illness can affect anyone, of any age or upbringing—including adolescents. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), close to 50 percent of adolescents has had, or will experience, a mental health disorder during their lifetime. 

Of course, some adolescents are at greater risk of developing a mental illness than others. Certain influences, called “risk factors,” can increase a person’s probability of developing a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. The more risk factors a person is exposed to, the more likely they are to see an impact on their mental health. This is especially true when this exposure happens in early life, between childhood and adolescence, when the brain is still developing.

In this guide, we explore the common risk factors for mental illness and how they can affect teenagers and young adults. These risk factors are important for parents to be aware of, now more than ever, as mental health problems continue to increase in youth.

Early Risk Factors for Mental Illness:

Risk factors are variables that increase a person’s chance of developing a disease (in this case, mental illness). Risk factors for mental illness may be genetic, psychological, cultural, or environmental. They may arise in relationships, at home, or as a result of family history. They may occur at the individual level, or may be variable and temporary. Below are ten of the most common risk factors for mental illness in young people.

  1. Exposure to stress. Studies show that frequent or long-term stress can increase the risk of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders.
  2. Violence and abuse. One of the most saddening, yet common risk factors for mental illness is physical abuse. Youth who are victims of abuse and bullying are more likely to experience mental health issues later in life. Those who witness domestic violence at home are also more likely to develop mental health struggles.
  3. Poor living conditions or home life. More broadly, a young person’s home life can have a significant impact on their mental health. Those who experience household dysfunction, domestic abuse, parental absence or loss, poverty, and/or who lack the basic necessities at home (such as food, safety, and clothing) have an increased risk of developing a mental illness. According to the World Health Organization, harsh parenting can also be a risk factor in childhood.
  4. Peer pressure, or pressure to fit in. Adolescents are inherently social beings, and negative experiences with peers can increase one’s risk of developing a mental illness. For example, many teens experience peer pressure to do things that make them uncomfortable. Others experience a desire, but inability, to fit in with others—disrupting their self-esteem and confidence. Constant exposure to these experiences can negatively affect their mental health, increasing the risk of depression and anxiety. Loneliness, discrimination, and exclusion are also risk factors for mental illness.
  5. Pressure to grow up or succeed. During adolescence and young adulthood, we begin to establish a desire for independence. We push boundaries and explore interests, in order to establish a greater sense of self and identity. Often, we feel the need to separate from our parents, figure out who we are, and pave our own paths to success. However, this is not easy for every teenager. It can create a significant amount of stress for young people, who feel an inherent pressure to develop an identity or succeed in various areas of life. Too much pressure on oneself can also lead to negative mental health effects.
  6. Substance abuse. Adolescents are known to take risks and experiment, and this is often the time they will try drugs and alcohol. However, repeated or long-term use of drugs and alcohol can cause a range of negative mental health effects, and put a person at significant risk for mental illness. Learn about the connection between mental health and substance abuse here.
  7. Media influence. Social media has grown in popularity, with an estimated 97 percent of teenagers using the internet and social platforms daily. However, research has found that frequent exposure to social media (and the media more generally) can contribute to increased stress and mental health issues in teenagers. Social media exposes teens to harrowing news, as well as “picture perfect” lives of other people, causing feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Social media also increases the risk of cyber bullying, negative self-image, and drug use, which can all disrupt a person’s mental health.
  8. Macro stressors. Social media exposes us to tragic news titles every day, but it seems that these occurrences are becoming more common. And they are creating stress for our youth. Between a rocky political climate, increasing gun violence in America, persistent racial inequities in our communities, and the COVID-19 pandemic (just to name a few), there has been a significant uptick in mental illness among youth in recent years. Macro stressors like these are becoming increasingly concerning risk factors for mental illness.
  9. Chronic disorders. While the risk factors listed above are largely environmental, it’s important to note that mental illness may also be caused by internal factors within. For example, young people struggling with chronic disorders – whether that’s another mental health disorder like ADHD, a physical disease like cancer, or a substance use disorder – can increase their risk of developing mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
  10. Family history of mental illness. Genetics can also play a role in a person’s likelihood of developing a mental illness. Those with a history of mental health problems in their family are at increased risk of mental disorders, though the specific mental illness may not be the same between family members.

Common Mental Illnesses in Adolescents:

It’s clear that there are many factors that can put a person at risk for mental illness. However, you may be wondering, what types of mental illnesses are young people most vulnerable to? Below are some of the most common mental health problems among adolescents and young adults today.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicide and self-harm

What to Know About Risk Factors for Mental Illness

Now that you know the common risk factors associated with mental illness, as well as the common mental health disorders in teens, here are some important facts to understand about them:

  • Exposure to multiple risk factors can increase a person’s vulnerability to mental illness. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Young people with multiple risk factors have a greater likelihood of developing a condition that impacts their physical or mental health.”
  • Risk factors are influential over long periods of time. They have the power to influence a person throughout their entire life. For example, exposure to trauma or poverty in childhood can contribute to the development of a mental health disorder later in life.
  • All people are vulnerable to risk factors and mental illness. As explained by SAMHSA, all people have different biological and psychological characteristics that can put them at risk for mental illness. Similarly, each person’s environment, relationships, and community can have an influence on their mental well-being. 
  • Protective factors can mitigate a person’s risk of mental illness. While risk factors increase a person’s likelihood of developing a mental illness, “protective factors” can help to reduce that risk. Protective factors for mental illness include positive family involvement and support, positive relationships and environment, and positive self-image and self-love. 
  • Early intervention is impactful. When the signs of mental illness are identified and addressed early, particularly during adolescence, the likelihood of recovery is great. Early intervention can help to introduce protective factors when they matter most, and help a young person overcome obstacles related to mental health.

Perhaps the most important thing to know—whether you are a teenager, a parent, an educator, or loved one—is that mental illness is treatable and manageable. Depending on the mental health condition, there are tailored treatments available that can help you overcome and cope with the symptoms. A happy and productive life is possible for you or your loved one. If you would like to learn more or explore your treatment options, do not hesitate to contact Turnbridge. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment center for young adults and adolescents. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.