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How to Help a Teenager With Mental Health Issues: A Guide for Parents

how to help teenager with mental illness

It is easy to recognize when your child breaks a bone or comes down with the flu. For most parents, it is also easy to call the doctor or order the treatment your teen needs. However, when it comes to mental illness, it’s a bit more convoluted. It is not always apparent when a teenager is struggling with mental health issues. It is not as simple to pick up the phone and get your loved one into a treatment program. Many parents will not recognize the signs or symptoms of a budding mental illness. And those who do may feel scared, overwhelmed, or unsure of how to help. 

If you are parenting a teenager with a mental illness and do not know what to do, you are not alone. This guide will provide you with expert advice on how to help a teenager with mental health issues.

What Parents Should Know About Mental Illness in Teenagers

Mental illness is often thought of as an “invisible” illness, because it is not as obvious or clear-cut as a physical ailment. Therefore, many people struggling with mental health issues do so silently. This is especially true for youth, as the early signs of mental illness often get confused with “typical” teenage behavior. For example, irritability, mood swings, and withdrawal from family are common signals of a mental health issue. However, these behaviors are also normal for adolescents. As a parent, it’s important to ask questions and stay in tune with your teen’s mental health.

Learn about the signs of mental illness in adolescents here.

Most people struggling with mental illness start showing symptoms by age 24. It is estimated that about half of mental health issues display symptoms by the age of 14. 

What’s more, the number of teenagers struggling with mental illness is growing. Between the current political climate and the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, American teenagers are experiencing more stressors (and, in turn, mental health issues) than ever before. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General just released an advisory to underline the current youth mental health crisis: Depressive and anxiety symptoms among youth doubled during the pandemic. In 2020, over half (51%) of teens reported very frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm. These trends have sustained even into 2022.

Checking in with your teenager is critical to their health and wellbeing. Asking questions, encouraging conversations, and being open about delicate topics like mental health can help lay a safe, supportive foundation in your home as issues arise. And if your teen is struggling with mental health issues right now, having this level of openness can help your teen feel more understood and safer at home.

How to Help a Teenager with Mental Illness

Creating a safe and open space is the most important thing you can do when parenting a teenager with mental illness. However, there are other steps you can take to help your teen cope with and overcome their mental health issues. Depending on your situation, consider the below advice.

If your teen is in crisis and immediate danger:

If you are concerned that your teenager’s life is in danger, consider this an emergency. Has your teen mentioned thoughts of suicide? Has your teen attempted any sort of self-harm? Have they experienced potentially dangerous delusions? Do not brush these behaviors off as demands for attention. Take them as a serious indication that your teen is struggling. Any thoughts or threats of suicide, instances of self-injury, or hallucinations are reasons to seek immediate help for your teenager. 

Depending on the situation, you should consider calling 911, heading to your local emergency department, or calling a crisis line. If you have time, you may also call a mental health treatment center or licensed clinician who can help you determine the next best steps. Do not leave your teenager alone under any circumstance if you are concerned for their life. If you are calling for emergency assistance, be sure to let the operator know that this is a mental health crisis. Many communities have dedicated first responders who are trained in mental health emergencies for youth.

If your teen is not in immediate danger, but is showing signs of a mental illness:

  • Be present and supportive.

New studies show that supportive relationships with parents can help protect teens’ mental health. Research also shows that the most important thing a child needs to be resilient is a stable, committed, and supportive relationship with an adult figure. For many children and teens, this adult is a parent. By staying present in your child’s life, and being their advocate, you can help them feel safe and supported in times of need. You can do this by showing them love and acceptance, praising them for their successes, listening to them and hearing what they have to say, and keeping communication open. Most importantly, let them know that you are here to support and help them, no matter what.

  • Seek professional treatment.

If your teenager is struggling with mental health issues and not in treatment, the next most important thing you can do is seek help. Make an appointment with your doctor, therapist, or another clinical professional, to get a professional evaluation. If you are unsure where to turn, call your primary care provider for advice. You may also contact a mental health treatment center like Turnbridge, with clinicians that specialize in youth services.

Too often, we ignore or brush off symptoms of mental illness, like depression or anxiety, without fully grasping the effects. In fact, it’s estimated that about half of children with treatable mental health conditions do not get the help they need.

Left untreated, mental health issues can only get worse. Without proper treatment, teenagers often attempt to self-mediate with drugs or alcohol, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms. Untreated mental health issues can also lead to attempts of self-harm and suicide. Research shows that most teens who commit suicide have a mood disorder, like depression or bipolar disorder.

As a parent, you have the power to seek the help your teenager needs. More than likely, they will not seek out help on their own. They may even be resistant to go get evaluated by a professional. In this case, talk to your teen about the doctor’s appointment the same way you would an annual check-up. Stay calm and collected, and describe why you are concerned. Let your teen know you care about their health, and that you made an appointment with a doctor to make sure everything is okay. At the evaluation, you should also give your teenager the chance to speak with the doctor alone. This will allow them to speak even more openly about any challenges they are facing, or feelings they are experiencing.

  • Create a crisis plan for your teenager.

If your teenager’s mental health symptoms escalate into an emergency, it is important to have a plan in place. Proactively create a list of resources to call, as well as a plan for other family members in your home. For example, if you have little ones, make a plan for childcare in case of emergency. Have a plan to keep everyone at home safe. Additionally, consider creating an intervention plan for if your teenager refuses to go to treatment. 

  • Remember to take care of yourself.

Children and teenagers often learn behaviors and habits from those around them. As a parent, you are one of the biggest influences and role models in their life. If you practice good self-care, and tend to your own mental health, you can encourage these same behaviors in your teen. Of course, this isn’t easy – especially in a stressful time like this. As much as you can, remember to stay positive, take breaks, ask for help when you need it, eat balanced meals, exercise, maintain a healthy routine, avoid drugs and alcohol, and stay connected with those you love. If you are experiencing down days or feelings of stress, find healthy ways to cope with those emotions. Psychiatric epidemiologist, Karestan Koenen, explains, “One of the biggest predictors of depression and anxiety in kids is parents’ own mental health and distress.” By taking care of yourself, you can in turn take care of your child.

  • Create a safe, stable, and predictable home environment. 

It is one thing to be supportive and loving parent. It is another to carry these qualities into your home environment. As the outside world spins with distressing news and a devastating pandemic, you can create a safe, stable, and predictable environment for your teenager to find peace. Predictability can help your teen know what to look forward to, what to expect, even when everything else feels out of their control. As a parent, you can do this by encouraging a regular routine, such as bedtime and dinnertime, as well as minimizing stressors and triggers at home.

Additionally, building a safe environment also requires you remove potential dangers from the home. This means removing things that could physically bring harm to your teen, such as firearms or prescription medications. Properly store any dangerous items, locked and out of your teen’s reach. Throw away expired and unused medications to prevent substance abuse. Additionally, consider monitoring your teen’s time spent online at home. The internet can come with its own set of stressors, including cyberbullying, access to negative information, and hurtful comparisons to others on social media.

  • Be an advocate for your teen. 

There is a lot of stigma built up around mental health – so much that many are afraid to speak up and ask for help. Many are scared to admit they are struggling, out of fear of what others might think. If you are parenting a teenager with mental illness, you have the unique opportunity to be an advocate and a voice for mental health. You can speak with others, such as friends and family, about the reality of mental health and its effects on people of all ages, backgrounds, and upbringings. You can spread awareness about the fact that mental health is health, and deserves proper attention and healthcare. You can help create programs for youth struggling with mental health issues. You can dispel myths and misconceptions that others hold about mental illness. You can stand up for your teen and all teens who may be struggling at this time.

  • Know your teen’s treatment options.

Earlier, we discussed the importance of getting your teen a mental health assessment if they are showing signs of a mental illness. Your doctor, therapist, primary care provider, or another clinician may point you in the direction of a mental health treatment facility. However, as a parent, know that there are options. There are many different types of mental health treatment services out there. Typically, it is recommended that teenagers with mental health disorders attend:

  • A residential treatment program, where they can live at the facility they receive treatment.
  • An age-specific treatment center, where clinicians are specialized in treating youth and specifically teenagers with mental health disorders.
  • A gender-specific program, where your teen will be surrounded by peers of the same gender, without temptation, pressure, or feelings of discomfort from the opposite sex.
  • A facility that specializes in co-occurring disorders, as a person often experiences multiple mental health and/or substance use disorders.

To learn more about the possible mental health treatment options for your teen, visit our article: “Mental Health Services and Therapy for Teens: A Guide to Getting Started.”

To learn about Turnbridge’s programs for adolescents and young adults, do not hesitate to reach out. You can call 877-581-1793 to learn more about our mental health treatment services and therapies for youth. You may also explore our various programs for teenagers online, here.

Recent research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms

The search query, “how to help a teenager with mental health issues” receives an average of 90 monthly searches, on average. It’s clear parents are seeking advice for how to cope with and help their teen at home, who might be struggling. At a time when youth are facing mental illness more than ever before, this is an important blog to right. What can parents be doing? When should parents seek support? What kind of support do teens need? How can parents intervene and stay positive? We can answer all these questions and more in this article.