The teen years can be a roller coaster for both teenagers and their parents. As the parent of an adolescent, you might wonder which behaviors are par for the course and which could indicate a problem. Read on to learn about which behaviors and feelings might be warning signs of teenage mental illness. Do keep in mind that all teenagers are different and that you should visit a mental health practitioner if you are concerned.
1. Feeling Very Worried, Sad, or Angry
It’s normal for everyone to occasionally worry, feel sad, or feel angry. If you notice that your teen is experiencing these feelings and their associated behaviors frequently, however, that could be a sign that there is something other than normal daily fluctuations going on. If your teen’s strong negative feelings are lasting longer than two weeks or they’re impacting various areas of his or her life, that’s an indication that you should talk to your teen and consider seeking help.
2. Extreme Mood Changes
If you have a teenager, you know that their moods can change quickly. Your teen can go from happy-go-lucky to extremely frustrated or very sad in a matter of minutes if the right circumstances are in play. An argument with a friend, a failing grade on a test, or being let down by a romantic partner can all cause some strong reactions in your hormonal teenager. However, if extreme mood swings are happening frequently and they’re not related to an external event, your teen should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
3. Not Caring About Physical Appearance
One sign of teenage mental illness is a sudden disinterest in physical appearance. If your teen used to care about name brands, makeup, and hairstyles and now they don’t, it could be a sign of depression, anxiety, or some other mental health condition. Granted, some teens are simply not into fashion, but most teens do want to maintain good hygiene and look nice. If yours doesn’t, it’s worth looking into.
4. Changes in Eating or Sleeping Habits
A variety of mental and physical conditions can cause changes in appetite and sleeping patterns. Your teen might suffer from insomnia and be unable to fall asleep or stay asleep all night. Conversely, they might find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning and might spend the whole day in bed some days. Another symptom of a mental health problem can center around food; your teen might binge on food, not eat at all, or eat a lot and purge afterward.
5. Change in School Performance
Many teens with mental health issues notice a change in school performance. This can be due to not waking up easily in the morning. It can also be due to problems focusing, apathy, or simply a lack of caring whether homework gets done. Anxiety, depression, social anxiety, ADHD or substance addiction can all cause problems with school.
6. Isolation or Loss of Interest in Activities
A teen with depression, social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, or various other mental health issues might begin to isolate him- or herself from friends. Your teen might also begin to lose interest in sports, outings with friends, dating, and other activities that they’ve enjoyed in the past. Sometimes teenagers will lose interest in one activity and replace it with something else; this is normal and common. When there’s nothing replacing the neglected activity, however, it could be a sign of a teenage mental illness.
7. Complaints of Physical Maladies
Some mental health conditions mimic physical issues and vice versa. A teen with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses might find that they have a lot of digestive difficulties, headaches, muscle aches, and other non-specific but persistent symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms are real and other times they’re presented as a reason to miss school or stay home from family outings. Either way, if they’re happening frequently, it’s important to take your teen for a physical check-up to rule out or confirm a physical issue. If nothing is found, a referral for mental health counseling might be in order.
8. Drug or Alcohol Abuse
Many teens who are struggling with mental health issues will begin to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. While some teens do experiment with alcohol, others will go on to develop an addiction. An addiction is not a moral failing; it’s actually a mental health problem in itself, but it can be compounded by the presence of additional mental health issues. If you suspect addiction in your teen, it’s important to get them help not only for the addiction itself but also for any underlying mental health condition that is exacerbating the substance abuse.
9. Trouble Understanding Reality
Perhaps one of the scariest warning signs of teenage mental illness is the loss of a grasp on reality. Serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia can begin during late adolescence. Disorganized thinking, paranoia, disorganized speech, and other troubling symptoms are difficult to ignore and should prompt immediate evaluation. Sometimes drugs, both illegal drugs and prescribed medications, can cause these symptoms. Unless it’s an emergency situation, start with a physical workup by your teen’s primary care doctor. If there’s nothing physical going on, he or she will be referred to a psychiatrist for additional testing.
10. Talk About Dying
One final mental health warning sign to watch for is suicidal ideation. This often includes talking about dying or death. Your teen might write a suicide note, collect pills for overdosing, try to get a gun, or take other measures to plan his or her death. Keep your teen safe and get immediate help by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, calling 911, or heading to the nearest emergency room.
Parenting a teen is challenging, and it can be hard to know whether a symptom is worrisome or just part of growing up. Keeping the lines of communication open can help you know what your teen is going through. Don’t be afraid to seek care from his or her doctor or to ask your teen to see a counselor to rule out physical conditions or a teenage mental illness. Also, don’t forget to take care of yourself; it’s difficult to care for someone who has concerning symptoms, so take the time to treat yourself well and to seek counseling if you need it.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.