For the most part, parents believe that psychological illness is reserved for adults. However, mental illness, even disorders such as bipolar and schizophrenia, can occur in children and teens as well. In fact, research shows that most psychological illnesses progress along a developmental course beginning early in life. This is true not only of those illnesses that are commonly associated with children, such as Autism and ADHD, but also phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and others. In fact, many of those who have a psychological illness, show signs of that disorder before 24 years of age.
Parents and caregivers of teens should also keep in mind that adolescence is a time of great change, including physical, mental, social and emotional changes. It is also a time when the onset of certain mental illnesses can occur. Sadly, some of these illnesses can impact an individual’s life long into adulthood. Because of this vulnerable time, it’s important to be familiar with the signs and conditions of a teen mental illness in order to get professional help sooner than later.
Teen Mental Illness Means Chronic Difficulty
There is a difference between experiencing a mental illness and occasionally having difficulty with feelings, thoughts, and managing stress. Certainly, teens may have difficulty from time to time with periods of anxiety, maintaining friendships, or feeling depressed. And at these times, they may need the support of their parents, caregivers, teachers, and a mental health professional. However, a teen mental illness is an ongoing experience of symptoms that get in the way of being able to function in one’s day. Symptoms may interfere with eating, sleeping, and going to school. Symptoms may interfere with having friendships or maintaining good grades. Just as you might support a child who is feeling stressed by too much homework, it is just as important, if not more, to get professional help for a child or teen who experiences symptoms of anxiety on an ongoing basis.
Anxiety in Teens versus Adults
In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), teens appear to be exceeding the stress levels of adults. American teens reported that they experience stress in patterns similar to adults, but that during the school year their stress levels are higher.
According to the APA’s Stress in America™ survey, teens reported that their stress levels exceeded what they believed to be healthy. Even during the summer, teens reported feeling stressed, which resulted in other feelings and moods. For instance, teens reported that as a result of stress, 31% felt overwhelmed and 30% felt depressed or sad. Teens also reported feeling tired (36%) as a result of stress and skipping a meal (23%) as a result of stress. Fortunately, the survey revealed that teens had fewer effects of stress on their body or physical health than adults (54% of teens vs. 39% of adults) and fewer effects on their mental health than adults (52% of teens vs. 43% of adults). To support teens in managing stress and anxiety, they may need to learn coping tools, healthy eating and sleeping habits, and a strong support network.
However, as mentioned above, teen mental illness is not the occasional experience of stress. An anxiety disorder is characterized by at least six months of experiencing symptoms which interfere with a teen’s ability to function in their day. Anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Panic Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
All of these illnesses can be a potential diagnosis for teens if they are experiencing symptoms of anxiety. Although it is unclear why a specific person might develop a mental illness, typically genetic, environmental, and biological factors play a role.
Genetics: Research indicates that genes play a role in whether or not a child develops a teen mental illness. If an adolescent has a relative with a disorder, there is a greater likelihood that he or she may also have that same illness. However, there are also some teens who have a mental illness and who do not have relatives afflicted by the same illness.
Biological: Certain mental illnesses can be caused by deficiencies in the brain. For instance, there are specific neurotransmitters in the brain that govern one’s ability to pay attention and focus. When a teen has low levels of dopamine, it’s an indicator that he or she may have ADHD.
Environmental: There are certain environmental factors that have been known to cause teen mental illness. For instance, a teen’s exposure to trauma, chronic stress, or poor or little attachment to a primary caregiver in childhood could contribute to an anxiety disorder.
Although there is a difference between stress and an anxiety disorder, chronic stress can contribute to the development of a teen mental illness, especially if a teen does not regularly use healthy coping tools.
Depression in Teens versus Adults
Research indicates that adolescents report similar symptoms of depression as adults. However, teens may exhibit those symptoms differently than adults. For instance, younger teens might complain of not feeling well or cling to a parent or caregiver. An older teen might sulk, exhibit negativity, or behave inappropriately at school. In 1987, a study of 296 children and teens between the ages of 6 and 18 carefully examined their symptoms of depression and compared them across various age groups. The study revealed that although there were some differences in the symptomatic experiences of children in different age groups, there were more similarities.
Furthermore, a more recent study showed that adolescents between the ages of 14 to 18 tended to have symptoms that were typical of adult depression. The symptoms of depression in adults include depressed mood, sleep disturbance, thinking difficulties, weight/appetite disturbance, worthlessness or guilt, loss of energy, and suicidal ideation. Among adolescents in the study, 97 to 54 percent of them reported experiencing these same symptoms.
Lastly, when examining the symptoms of depression among children and adolescents a bit more closely, research indicates that younger teens tend to have symptoms of depression that are more anxiety-oriented, such as fearfulness and nervousness. At the same time, older adolescents tend to show symptoms of loss of interest and pleasure. They tend to have morbid thinking and suicidal ideation. Those adolescents that are severely depressed will exhibit signs of psychosis, which is a loss of touch with reality. They might experience hallucinations or delusions or both. Psychotic symptoms of depression are rare in teens, but when present, they indicate a severe form of major depression.
Bipolar Disorder in Teens versus Adults
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Bipolar Disorder affects approximately 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year. For children and teens, Bipolar Disorder will develop in about 1-5% of those under 18 years of old. However, when Bipolar Disorder develops in childhood or early adolescence, it is known as an early-onset form of the mental illness. Because, generally, the typical onset for this mental illness is 25 years of age. Bipolar can begin in childhood and develop as late as 40 years of age.
Bipolar is a mood disorder, meaning that of all the psychological illness, it is a disorder that affects mood, emotions, and perception. Characteristic of this disorder is a swing in moods from depression to mania. However, research now indicates that the difference in the experience of mood swings between teens and adults might be due to the differences in brain development. The brain is developing in teens. Because the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that governs reason and logic) teens, tend to be more impulsive and emotional. This, in turn, can contribute to significant risk factors in a teen’s experience of mania and depression. For instance, their experience of these two states may be more pronounced. Severe depression can lead to suicide, and extreme mania can lead to substance abuse. It’s not surprising to know that approximately 40% of teens with Bipolar Disorder also have a substance abuse disorder. Cocaine use, for example, could help amplify a high while the use of marijuana could help with lowering mood if adolescents feel too hyper or manic.
In the mental health field, a teen or young adult who exhibits the traits of Conduct Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder may have the beginning symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder are seen as the precursor for Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is a diagnosis that can only be provided when a person is 18 years or older. Approximately, 3% of the population, or about 8,100,000 individuals in the United States have Antisocial Personality Disorder. Even more people (especially those with addiction) have antisocial personality traits and exhibit antisocial behavior.
At-risk youth are often vulnerable to developing these illnesses. At risk youth are typically those who have had distressing childhoods and by virtue of their circumstances are more at risk to fail academically, occupationally, and socially. They likely had a poor or little attachment to a primary caregiver, tend to be vulnerable to harm against self and others, drug use, early sexual activity, suicide attempts, and mental illness.
Schizophrenia in Teens versus Adults
It’s rare for teens to experience schizophrenia. However, if they are prone to this illness or another psychotic disorder, late adolescence is when a teen may have a psychotic break. In fact, if and when this happens, most teens will recover from it and never experience psychosis again. For other teens, a psychotic break may be the beginning of a lifelong relationship with having a psychotic disorder.
Schizophrenia is one type of a psychotic disorder. It is a psychological illness that affects thinking, feeling, movement, and behavior. The primary symptom of schizophrenia is psychosis, which is an experience of the mind (psyche) losing contact with reality. Hallucinations and delusions are typical experiences of psychosis.
As mentioned above, we tend to think of adults having schizophrenia. However, the typical onset for this illness is late adolescence. Teens may experience the beginning of this illness during their teens. Some are destined to face the illness for the rest of their lives while others might experience psychosis for a brief time and never experience it again.
Supporting a Teen’s Mental Health
If a child is beginning to show signs of teen mental illness, be sure to work closely with a mental health professional so that your teenager is appropriately diagnosed and treated. As mentioned above, adolescence is a vulnerable time for teens when it comes to their psychological health. To avoid teen mental illness in the first place, parents and caregivers can do the following to promote mental health:
- encourage your teen to get a good night’s sleep
- teach your teen coping tools to manage daily stress and avoid overwhelm
- talk to your teen about healthy eating and invite them to join you in preparing healthy meals
- encourage your teen to create a network of support – people they can rely upon when needed
At times, despite the best efforts of parents, teens may still develop a psychological illness. Working with a mental health professional can provide you, your teen, and your family with tools to help manage symptoms and avoid relapses in the future.