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What are the Signs of Mental Illness in Teens and Young Adults?

signs of mental illness in adolescents

As parents, it’s hard to believe that our children may be struggling with their mental health. However, it’s an important reality that we cannot ignore. Research shows that 3 out of 4 mental health conditions begin by age 24, and at least half of mental illnesses begin by age 14. Teenagers are commonly – and increasingly – facing issues like depression, anxiety, and stress disorders. However, with so many transitional and hormonal changes occurring in adolescence, it can be difficult for parents to differentiate “normal” teenage behavior from an emerging mental health issue. How can you distinguish the two?

By knowing the common signs of mental illness, parents (as well as clinicians, educators, and other adult figures) can help identify and address mental health issues in children and teenagers as they occur. By intervening early, you can help protect teenagers from longer-term, deeper-seated mental health issues down the road.

Common Signs of Mental Health Disorders in Young People

There are many different mental illnesses out there, each with their own symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment regimes. Some of the most common mental health disorders in teenagers and young adults include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Eating Disorders
  • Substance Use Disorders

While the symptoms of each mental health issue can differ, there are some common signs that parents and guardians can watch for. As noted above, most of these signs start exhibiting in childhood and adolescence. 

The signs of an emerging mental health disorder in children are not always obvious, as children are still developing their thoughts, emotions, and communication skills. Therefore, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that most symptoms in younger people are behavioral. These might include:

  • Struggles at school, and/or changes in school performance
  • Hyperactive behavior, such as an inability to sit still, pay attention, or complete a task
  • Recurring or frequent nightmares
  • Waking up more at night
  • Frequent disobedience, intense temper tantrums, or aggression towards others
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, such as refusing to go to school for no reason, or anxious about separating from family members
  • Not wanting to go outside or socialize

Meanwhile, the signs of a mental illness most commonly identified in older adolescents and young adults include:

  • Excessive worry or fear, may be overwhelming and cause physical discomfort
  • Excessive sadness or hopelessness
  • Problems concentrating, learning, and staying still
  • Confused thinking
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Out-of-control or severe risk-taking behaviors
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” and “low” periods
  • Inability to effectively cope with difficult situations and stress
  • Inability to carry out regular, daily activities due to their mental health 
  • Excessive tiredness, fatigue, or low energy
  • Intense lack of self-confidence and worry about appearance/weight
  • Physical ailments without obvious causes, such as headaches, stomach aches, and muscle aches
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Prolonged and intensified feelings of anger and irritability
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Changes in eating patterns, such as increased hunger and food intake, or lack of appetite/refusal to eat
  • Loss of interest in once-loved activities and hobbies
  • Loss of interest in schoolwork and drop in grades, as a result
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and social activities
  • Struggles relating to other people, or understanding others
  • Difficulty perceiving reality, including hallucinations or delusions
  • Lack of self-awareness and ability to recognize changes in one’s own feelings, behaviors, and personality
  • Misuse of substances, including drugs and/or alcohol
  • Attempting to end one’s own life, or talking about it

If you notice any of the above symptoms in your child, it is important to have a conversation regarding mental health. Ask questions about how your child is feeling, what they are dealing with, and how you can help. Open and transparent conversations about daily challenges, mental health struggles, and fears are important more than ever. This conversation can be the first step to getting professional help. Ask your teen questions like:

  • Do you feel sad? 
  • Are you feeling stressed? 
  • Is something making you feel scared?
  • What is bothering you? or Do you know what is bothering you?
  • What do you think you might need to feel better?
  • Do you feel loved and supported?
  • Do you feel like you need someone to talk to, but don’t know where to turn?
  • If you could do anything right now, what would it be?
  • Are you eating, exercising, and/or sleeping well?
  • How is your body feeling? Do you feel any pains?
  • What do you do with your friends?
  • How has the pandemic impacted your life and your mental health?

Mental health among teenagers is becoming an increasingly common topic and concern. Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers are having to deal with new and persistent feelings of stress, fear, worry, grief, and uncertainty about what lies ahead. Many children, teenagers, and young adults do not know how to cope with all of this, and it is weighing heavily upon them. For this reason, checking in with your child is more critical than ever.

According to research conducted from April to October 2020, mental health emergencies among 12-to-17 year-olds increased by 31 percent when compared to the prior year. Teenagers and young people generally are struggling to cope with distance learning, anxieties about the COVID-19 illness, lack of social interactions among friends, cancellation of important school events, grief from losing loved ones, on top of all the other political and emotional turmoil affecting our youth today. This puts them at increased risk of mental health conditions, as well as risky behaviors like substance abuse.

If you are a parent and suspect mental health struggles in your child, the time to act is now. Begin these conversations with your teen at home. Let your child know how much you love them, support them, and are there when they are in need. Ask if they need help. Set up a plan in case they exhibit the above signs and symptoms, and if you are feeling increasingly concerned about your teen’s overall health and wellness. There is support for you.

Turnbridge is a leading mental health and substance abuse treatment center for adolescents and young adults. We have dedicated programs for young men and women struggling with mental health issues, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and more. Call us at 877-581-1793 to speak with an admissions counselor, or explore our programs online.