How to Help Your Teen Struggling With Mental Health Issues

Last Updated: January 30, 2023

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With each new generation come new challenges or different versions of the same struggles that have affected teens for decades. Bullying, peer pressure, body shaming, negative self-perception — the list of teen issues goes on and on. As a parent, you might have your own list from when you were young, but you may be unsure if it fully equips you to help your teen through their own difficulties. Many of the challenges adolescents face involve mental health issues, some of which have the potential to lead to drug abuse as a coping mechanism. But how much do you know about these issues? Do you know the signs to look for or how to effectively help your teen?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 49.5% of all teens between the ages of 13 and 18 had any mental disorder with an estimated 22.2% with severe impairment. This includes mood, behavior, and anxiety disorders. Your teen is not alone in their struggles. You’re not alone either, and it’s important that you both always keep that in mind while exploring your treatment options.

See More: Psychoeducation for Mental Health Disorder 

By the Numbers: Teen Mental Illness

Mental illnesses like depressionanxiety, and bipolar disorder affect thousands of teens across the country every year. These statistics point to their prevalence — and the need for compassionate counsel and care from loved ones.

  • Each year in America, 1 in 5 teens aged 13–18 experience a mental health condition.
  • LGBTQ individuals are twice as likely as others to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Nearly 90% of people who died by suicide had an underlying mental illness.
  • Eating disorders can develop in children as young as 8 years of age.
  • 50% of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14.

Ways to Help Your Teen

  • Know the warning signs. It can be difficult to tell whether or not your teen has a mental disorder, but there are certain nonverbal cues and signs you can watch out for. The National Institute of Mental Health compiled these common warning signs of mental illness that you can be vigilant of. Some signals include meticulous or restrained eating (indicative of an eating disorder), oversleeping or exhaustion, extreme mood swings, and wearing long sleeves or pants or bandages (to cover up signs of self-harm).
  • Educate yourself about mental illnesses. Learning everything you can about mental illness is the first step in knowing how to help someone struggling. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers a free education program for parents of teens with mental illnesses, called NAMI Basics.
  • Talk openly about mental illness. This is the first strategy for most parents, and oftentimes it can be one of the most effective. If your teen is struggling with a mental health disorder, the worst thing you can do is to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Talking openly and honestly to your teen about depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts reduces the stigma of silence around these issues and lets your child know that it’s OK to speak up about what they’re going through.
  • Have a conversation about drug abuse. Many teens choose to experiment with drugs and alcohol to escape the weight of a mental disorder. While your teen may never try dangerous substances, don’t assume that they won’t — instead, have a discussion about the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction. If you fear your teen is addicted, talking to them is even more important. Learning the difference between confrontation and conversation is crucial in knowing how to approach the situation.   

“Are you a friend, relative or partner of a teen with mental illness? There are ways you can help that show you care. “

  • Be supportive, not enabling. When and if your teen opens up about their mental illness struggles, be patient, and above all, listen. Let your teen know that having a mental health issue doesn’t change how much you love them. It may be difficult, but try not to jump to conclusions or blame certain people, events or situations for what your child is experiencing. It can be all too easy to practice enabling behaviors that do more harm than good, such as offering to do homework or making excuses for their mental illness.
  • Don’t use dismissive or judgemental language. When talking to someone who’s struggling, it’s important to think about the way you talk. Platitudes like “Everything’s going to be OK” and “You’ll get over it” do nothing to help someone with a mental health disorder. Instead, ask questions like “How can I best support you right now?” Reassure your teen that they’re not the only one who deals with these issues and that you’re by their side through it all.
  • Consult your pediatrician or primary care doctor. Your teen’s doctor will be able to give you pointers on how to identify the presence of a mental illness and advice on how to proceed should your teen’s condition worsen. If your teen’s doctor does not provide a diagnosis or referral to another professional, it can be beneficial to seek a second opinion. It’s better to be cautious than let a mental illness fester.
  • Get a referral for a mental health specialist. Talk therapy with a licensed counselor can go a long way to help someone battling mental illness. Saying something like “It worries me to hear you talking like this; let’s talk to someone about it,” can be the key to broaching the topic of counseling with your teen. Your doctor or health insurance representative will be able to recommend therapy options that fit your budget and align with your child’s needs.

The Bottom Line on Teens and Mental Illness

Mental illness can often fuel eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, and suicidal thoughts. If you’re worried that your teen’s mental illness has led to substance abuse or an eating disorder, reach out to The Recovery Village. Our facilities provide comprehensive, confidential treatment for substance use, mental health, and eating disorders, so your teen can get back on track to wellness.  

Available Helplines

Need immediate advice or a listening ear? Representatives on these hotlines are always available to take your call and offer advice.

National Parent Helpline

National Crisis Text Line
Text 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call or text 988

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When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

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