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Healthy Balance

Teens and Mental Health

Mary A. Sullivan coordinates community advocacy, education and outreach efforts for the Teen Health Center. She’s provided health education to local students and parents for over 20 years. Here she shares her thoughts about teens and mental health.

Stressors like academic pressure, social insecurity, family discord and peer pressure can cause mental health issues in teens.The transition from childhood to adulthood, adolescence, is enormously significant. Physical, cognitive and psychosocial developmental changes render adolescents particularly vulnerable. This inherent vulnerability combined with external stressors and/or a predisposition to mental illness set the stage for the proverbial “perfect storm.”

Let’s look first at common stressors challenging pre-teens, teens and young adults. These include, to name a few:

  • Academic pressure
  • Social insecurity
  • Family discord
  • Peer pressure

Teens also experience “trickle-down” stress experienced by their parents or caregivers, including financial instability and divorce or chronic illness experienced by a family member. Since adolescent development varies widely, pre-teens and teens often worry about whether or not they are “normal” compared with their peers.

Depression in Teens

Depressed adolescents may have many of the same symptoms as depressed adults, including:

  • Feeling sad, guilty, helpless and hopeless
  • Changed appetite and sleep patterns
  • Decreased energy and focus
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Suicidal thoughts

But depression in adolescence may also resemble normal adolescent angst: Irritability, apathy and vague complaints. Since depression is potentially lethal, knowing your child’s “normal” is important.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders often occur during significant life transitional periods, making adolescents susceptible. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating are some common eating disorders. While these are more common in women, young men can develop eating disorders. These conditions are most effectively treated with quick diagnosis and intervention.


The stressors challenging adolescents make anxiety a given. While the adolescent brain is not fully developed, the ability to look into the future combined with moodiness and impulsiveness create fertile ground for anxiety.

Teen Alcohol and Drug Use

Experimental use of alcohol and drugs is very common in adolescence. In his most recent book “Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy,” David Sheff, journalist and father of an addict in recovery, reports interesting information gleaned from surveys of parents and teens.

Many parents attributed their teens’ drug use to peer pressure and a “selfish pursuit of pleasure.” But teens reported differently:

  • Thirty-two percent reported using drugs to forget troubles
  • 24 percent because of troubles at home
  • 20 percent to handle school pressure

A mere 7 percent of parents attributed teen drug use as a mode of managing stress!

Sheff also points out that drug addiction usually occurs with other disorders like depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, OCD and anxiety, illnesses not generally addressed in drug rehab programs.

Teen Suicide

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after accidents and homicide. It’s also thought that at least 25 attempts are made for every completed teen suicide. Young people with mental health problems — such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or insomnia — are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts. Teens going through major life changes (parents’ divorce, moving, a parent leaving home due to military service or parental separation, financial changes) and those who are victims of bullying are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts.

Factors that increase the risk of suicide among teens include:

  • A psychological disorder, especially depression, bipolar disorder and/or alcohol and drug use (approximately 95% of people who die by suicide have a psychological disorder at the time of death)
  • Feelings of distress, irritability or agitation
  • Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that often accompany depression
  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Family history of depression or suicide
  • Emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • Lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or peers and feelings of social isolation

Treatment and Final Points

Adolescent stress is real and significant and should not be minimized by those who care for and about young people.

The stress parents experience can be “contagious,” affecting their children. Since adolescents are not always forthcoming with the adults in their lives, these adults must be vigilant, noticing problematic physical, social and emotional changes.

Mental health disorders can be successfully treated, and treatment becomes more effective when combined with other stress management techniques, including:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Meditation
  • Adequate amounts of sleep
  • Healthy food

Remember, too, that adolescents in general are a resilient lot, and many surmount the challenges presented during this life transition.


Are you a teen who needs help with any of these problems? Or are you a parent who’s worried about your teen?

Contact the Teen Health Center.

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