10 Warning Signs of Teenage Mental Illness
Signs of teenage mental illness can be hard to spot. Read on to discover the warning signs of mental illness in adolescents.
Fundamentals of Mental Illness
Mental illnesses are health conditions that can change how we think, feel, and behave. Mental illness can affect how we interact with others and can impact our ability to go about our lives as usual. When mental health is severely impacted, it can take a serious toll on personal relationships, work, school, and life.
Mental Illness Statistics
Mental illness has been stigmatized in the past, and for some people, it is still something that they feel the need to hide. But dealing with mental illness is very common. In any given year:1
- One in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness.
- One in 24 people in the United States has a severe mental illness.
- One in 12 people has a substance use disorder.
Mental illness is widespread, but it’s also very treatable. Many people with mental illness can function normally, and some mental illness is preventable. Someone can be diagnosed with a mental illness but not necessarily require intensive treatment. However, many people benefit from therapy or medication when coping with mental illness.
Mental Illness and Diagnosis
Getting a mental illness diagnosis can be difficult, as some mental health conditions have overlapping symptoms. Depression and anxiety are some of the most common mental illnesses in adults. Generally, your doctor will perform blood tests to rule out any physical causes for symptoms and perform a psychological evaluation. In this evaluation, you will be asked about your symptoms, feelings, thoughts, and behavior patterns. Often, you will complete a questionnaire ranking the severity of your symptoms.
Your doctor or psychiatrist will provide a mental illness diagnosis using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 has detailed information about different mental illnesses and allows your doctor to diagnose accurately.2
How Common is Mental Illness?
Types of Mental Illness
There are many different classes of mental health disorders. It’s essential to know the most common mental illnesses and symptoms so you can identify them in your child or yourself.
The most common mental illnesses in adults and teenagers will be detailed below.3
Someone with an anxiety disorder often feels a sense of fear or worry. Anxiety disorders are characterized by a preoccupation with potential danger or misfortune, and some people with anxiety disorders will avoid certain situations due to their anxiety. This class includes generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, and panic disorder.
Bipolar and Related Disorders
This type of mental illness is characterized by episodes that alternate between mania (a heightened sense of energy, excitement, and excessive activity) and depression.
These disorders affect how a person feels emotionally, like levels of sadness or happiness. Depressive disorders include major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders
These conditions are characterized by a lack of emotional and behavioral control. Examples of this type of disorder include kleptomania and intermittent explosive disorder.
Dissociative disorders include dissociative amnesia or dissociative identity disorder, and these conditions feature a disrupted or distant sense of self.
Feeding and Eating Disorders
These mental conditions involve disturbances to eating that affect health and nutrition. Examples include anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
Someone with a neurocognitive disorder may struggle to think and reason normally. Neurocognitive disorders can be caused by an external condition, including traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease.
Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders
These disorders involve obsessive thinking, repetitive behavior, and preoccupations. Examples include trichotillomania (excessive hair plucking), hoarding disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Someone with a personality disorder will demonstrate a long-standing pattern of emotional instability and unhealthy behavior, which causes unstable relationships and other problems in life. Examples of this mental illness include narcissistic, borderline, and antisocial personality disorders.
Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders
Substance use disorders and addiction involve excessive use of substances like alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and drugs. This class also includes gambling disorders.
Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders
This class of mental health disorder is a class of adjustment disorders in which someone struggles to cope after a stressful event in life. Common examples include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder.
A Deeper Look into Trauma and Stress Related Disorders
10 Warning Signs of Teenage Mental Illness
Teens are known to be moody and emotional due to hormone changes and being in the transitional stage of life they’re in. Some of the signs of teenage mental illness may be subtle, and there is also a chance you or the teen in your life will try to hide the teenage mental illness symptoms. However, it’s essential to spot signs and symptoms of mental illness. Warning signs of teenage mental illness include:
Feeling Very Worried, Sad, or Angry
All people experience a range of emotions, but if you notice the teen in your life expressing negative or worrisome emotions almost constantly, they may be showing teenage mental illness symptoms.
Extreme Mood Changes
Extreme mood changes are a common warning sign of teenage mental illness. There is a difference between moodiness and drastic mood changes; for example, someone who seems to shift moods rapidly or whose mood swings are all-consuming and last for days may be experiencing mental illness.4
Abnormal Lack of Effort in Physical Appearance
Someone who suddenly stops caring about their appearance may be exhibiting one of the warning signs of teenage mental illness. This can include fundamental hygiene issues like not showering, brushing teeth, using deodorant, washing clothes, and brushing hair.
Changes in Eating or Sleeping Habits
A teen struggling with mental illness may seem to sleep all day—or they may deal with insomnia, being unable to sleep at night. Additionally, changes in appetite, like overeating or eating very little, could indicate teenage mental illness.
Changes in School Performance
A teen who struggles in school—missing class, skipping homework, making bad grades—could be dealing with a mental illness. Though fewer people recognize good academic performance as one of the warning signs of teenage mental illness, it is essential to note that a student who obsesses over grades or school could be dealing with anxiety or another mental illness.
Isolation or Loss of Interest in Activities
Also, a sign of mental illness in adults, isolating oneself and feeling apathetic to things you once enjoyed are signs of teenage mental illness.
Complaints of Physical Maladies
In the form of stress, anxiety, or depression, mental illness can cause physical aches and pains like stomach aches, headaches, digestive issues, and other bodily pains. If the teen in your life is often complaining of physical distress, it may stem from a psychological problem. People with mental illness frequently suffer from a range of ailments, from muscle tension to headaches.5
Drug or Alcohol Abuse
A teenager who frequently uses drugs and/or alcohol may be doing so to cope with complicated feelings stemming from mental illness.
Trouble Understanding Reality
Someone distant, disconnected from reality, and hallucinations or delusions may be dealing with mental illness.
Talk about Death or Dying
Talking about death is a worrisome sign of mental illness that needs urgent treatment. If you or someone you know frequently speaks about dying, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Causes of Mental Illness
There is no single cause for mental illness or mental disturbance in teens, and it often stems from a combination of factors. Some things may make it more likely for a person to exhibit signs of teenage mental illness, including:
Mental illness is more common in people whose blood relatives also have a mental illness. Specific genes may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, and your life situation may trigger it.
Environmental Exposures Before Birth
Exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol, or drugs while in the womb can sometimes be linked to mental illness.
Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, leading to depression and other emotional disorders.
Mental illness is not caused by weakness or character flaws; people don’t get to choose whether to be mentally ill or not. Also, keep in mind that, even if you have experienced one or many of the risk factors listed above, that does mean you will automatically have a mental illness.
Complications with Mental Illness
Mental illness in adults and teenagers can cause disruptions in everyday functioning. Some people may struggle with basic daily tasks like getting up in the morning and taking care of personal and household responsibilities. However, the complications of mental illness don’t end there.
Dealing with a mental illness can create tension in relationships; people with mental illnesses may not be able to support their partners emotionally if they struggle to regulate their own emotions. Additionally, mental illness can cause moodiness, irritability, and anger, potentially pushing people away.
Someone with a mental illness may also have problems at work. Missing school or not completing homework are signs of poor mental health in teens; struggling to focus at school can also be a sign of mental illness. People with major mental illnesses may be completely unable to work, go to school, or take care of themselves.
Common Effects of Mental Illness
Mental illness can complicate life in many other ways, too. Some common problems include:
- Becoming addicted to tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs
- Becoming socially isolated, losing friends, or being unable to make friends
- Harming oneself or others
- Developing physical issues stemming from mental illness, like heart disease and other medical conditions
Risk factors of Teenage Mental Illness
Though there are no exact causes of mental health problems, there are certain risk factors that can increase a teen’s chances of having a mental illness, and there are also many protective factors that can make mental illness less likely.6
What Risk Factors Increase the Likelihood of Mental Illness?
Risk factors include:
- A history of mental illness in a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling
- Stressful life situations, such as financial problems, a loved one’s death, or a divorce
- An ongoing (chronic) medical condition, such as diabetes
- Brain damage because of a serious injury
- Traumatic experiences, such as military combat or assault
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
- A childhood history of abuse or neglect
- Lacking friends or a solid support system
What Protective Factors Reduce the Likelihood of Mental Illness?
Protective factors that make mental illness less likely include:
- High self-esteem
- Emotional self-regulation
- Good coping skills and problem-solving skills
- Engagement with peers, culture, religion, athletics, employment, etc.
- Structured and supportive family
- Physical and psychological safety
Mental Illness Treatment
Mental illness is usually very treatable. Even people with major mental illnesses can see improvement in symptoms with treatment. Common approaches to mental illness treatment involve medication, therapy, or a combination of the two.
Medication does not cure teenage mental illness, but it can treat symptoms. People with depression are often prescribed antidepressants, also known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). These medications reduce feelings of sadness and anxiety and can eliminate suicidal thoughts.
Contrary to some myths about antidepressants, they do not change people’s entire personalities or make them happy 24/7. Other medications used to treat mental illness include antipsychotics and mood stabilizers. Medication can be very helpful for some people with mental illness, but it doesn’t always work for everyone.7
Therapy for mental illness is another treatment option that can be utilized on its own or alongside medication. Psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy,” is a common type of treatment that allows individuals to talk through their problems with a trained professional, unpacking problems, emotions, past trauma, and any other factors that may be contributing to mental illness.
People with more severe symptoms or major mental illnesses may receive treatment at a hospital or residential facility. Inpatient treatment typically involves a combination of medication and therapy, along with 24/7 monitoring and more intensive counseling.
There are also many things you can do on your own that may improve mental health. Avoiding substances can stabilize moods; getting regular exercise has also been shown to improve depression and anxiety. Below, we’ll explore more ways to improve mental health.
Why Is Mental Illness Treatment Important?
Mental Health Exercises
Dealing with mental illness can be tough, but you don’t have to feel powerless over your moods and symptoms. People experiencing severe mental illness symptoms may need more intensive treatment, but people with less severe mental health problems may be able to improve their mental health at home. If you’re interested in some techniques to improve your mental health, consider the following:
This may seem like cliché advice, but there are some things to do to create a more positive mindset and improve mental health. Staying positive isn’t about denying all your negative feelings, but it’s more about preventing the negative feelings from completely taking over.
If you find yourself ruminating on negative things, try to consciously change your thought patterns or focus your attention on something else. You could try participating in an activity you enjoy or spending time with friends or family.
Don’t forget to be grateful for all the good things in your life. You may want to invest in a gratitude journal and get into the habit of making gratitude lists every morning or evening.
The things you are grateful for can be anything—big things, like the support from your family, or small things, like a pretty flower you saw on a walk. Over time, this practice can be a form of self-care for mental illness and change your mindset to be more positive and grateful.
Take Care of Your Physical Health
Your mental and physical health are connected, so it’s essential to do everything to keep your physical health in good shape. This includes staying active, getting good sleep, and eating a nutritious diet.8
Meditation and Relaxation Techniques
Meditation is a practice that teaches you to tune into your inner experience, and it has been proven to help with mental health illnesses like anxiety. Relaxation techniques can also be helpful, especially in times of acute stress or anxiety.
You can utilize different breathing techniques or progressive relaxation methods to slow breathing, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress. You may also consider taking up yoga, which has been proven to improve mental illness in adults and teenagers.9
Key Tips for Parents
If your child shows signs of teenage mental illness, you may feel helpless. It can be hard to know the right things to say, especially if your teenager doesn’t want to open up to you about their struggles.
Ask your child about their day regularly; look for ways to check in with your teen each day. You may consider asking them to run an errand with you or asking them to help with a task, so you have the chance to catch up with one another.
It’s important to keep lines of communication as open as possible, so your child knows you are there for them. When you do communicate, stay calm, open, and honest, and try utilizing affirming statements like “I understand” and “That sounds difficult” so your child knows you see where they’re coming from.
Remind them that, no matter what, you’re there for them, and you want to hear about how they’re feeling. Remember to be encouraging and validate their emotions; this will help them trust you and feel comfortable sharing their feelings with you.
Keep in mind that your child may be struggling with different kinds of mental illnesses, but you cannot diagnose them; only a doctor can. Mental illness is treatable, and if your teenager is diagnosed with a mental illness, treatments like therapy and medication are available.
Consider Mental Health Disorder Treatment at Pacific Beach Health
If your teen exhibits signs of teenage mental illness, know you’re not alone. Mental health issues are common, but there are resources to help you and your child feel better. At Pacific Beach Health, our team offers intensive, compassionate care for mental illness and prioritizes improving teenage mental health. Using integrative, holistic treatments, Pacific Beach Health offers therapy tailored to each unique individual, allowing them to get better in a way that works for them. Addressing adolescent mental health concerns is essential to creating a solid foundation for a happy and healthy adult life. Reach out to Pacific Beach Health to learn more.