How to Help Your Teen Struggling With Mental Health Issues
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 20 percent of all teens between the ages of 13 and 18 have or will have a serious mental illness. 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.
By the Numbers: Teen Mental Illness
Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety 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 almost 3 times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder.
- Nearly 90 percent of teens who died by suicide had an underlying mental illness.
- Eating disorders can develop in children as young as 8 years of age.
- Half (50 percent) 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 drugs and alcohol. 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.
- 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.
Need immediate advice or a listening ear? Representatives on these hotlines are always available to take your call and offer advice.
National Mental Health Association
National Parent Helpline
National Crisis Text Line
Text 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline