Adolescent mental health
Adolescence, spanning from the ages of 10 to 19, is a formative developmental period in life, full of rapid change. During this time, our identities evolve, and we understand more about our likes and dislikes. Our bodies change, we become more socially aware and sensitive, and there’s also a school transition to adjust to. All the while, we are learning, making mistakes and having new experiences.
The social, emotional and physical changes occurring mean that this unique period is rarely stress-free. These changes can leave some adolescents more vulnerable to mental health challenges. It's particularly important to pay attention to mental health during adolescence, as experiences here can affect our wellbeing through to adulthood.
Normal adolescent ups and downs can be difficult to distinguish from more serious mental health challenges. When in doubt, it’s best to seek professional help, as this is an important time to learn skills for wellbeing and resilience. This places us in good stead for a happy and fulfilling future.
Types of adolescent mental health issues
Some types of mental health issues most commonly experienced during adolescence include:
- Low self-esteem
- Sleeping problems
- Eating disorders
- Behavioral challenges, such as conduct disorder
- Psychotic disorders
Prevalence of mental health issues in adolescents
According to the World Health Organization, around half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14, and 10-20% of adolescents experience mental health challenges.
However, most of these are not detected at the time and go untreated. This can adversely affect the longer-term resilience and mental health of these individuals as they progress through adulthood. It’s therefore important to be alert to early symptoms of mental health challenges.
Common symptoms of mental health issues in adolescence
Adolescents can find it hard to articulate or communicate emotional and psychological difficulties. Some symptoms to look out for include:
- Irritability, frustration or anger
- Worrying excessively
- Relationship problems
- Risk-taking behavior, such as substance use
- Physical symptoms, like stomach aches or headaches
- Poor sleep or changes to eating habits
- Rapid changes in mood
- Spending more time alone, withdrawing from family and friends
- Declining academic performance
Adolescence is a critical time for mental health conditions characterized by psychosis, as this is often when symptoms begin. Symptoms include:
- Hallucinations: Seeing or hearing things that are not real
- Delusions: Holding inaccurate beliefs
Treatments options for adolescents
Adolescents struggling with mental health challenges have many treatment options available, such as:
- Therapy: Talking therapies in individual, family and group contexts can help with adolescent mental health challenges.
- Helplines: If you need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255, or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. You can talk to someone trained to help people your age at Teen Line at 310-855-4673, or text 839863.
- Self-care: Adolescents sometimes need guidance to establish good self-care habits. This includes getting an appropriate amount of sleep and having good sleep hygiene, eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, and learning helpful self-talk.
- Social support: People often feel like withdrawing from family and friends when they are going through a challenging time, and adolescents can have a particularly difficult time communicating and seeking help. However, it is important to stay connected. Reaching out to friends and family for help or to talk things over is important.
- Online resources: Explore self-guided psychological resources online.
- School and college resources: Most educational institutions have a team of counselors or resources available to support students.
- Check-up: See your physician for review, as some mental health diagnoses benefit from medication as well as psychological therapy. This is also an opportunity to explore or rule out any physical factors contributing to symptoms.
Therapy for adolescents
The best-fitting type of therapy depends on the particular challenges you are experiencing. There is a range of therapeutic approaches available that can be tailored to help young people experiencing a wide range of mental health challenges, including:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps adolescents change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, and create more balanced perspectives.
- Mindfulness Practices help adolescents become more aware of thoughts and emotions without automatically reacting to them.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) involves components of CBT, mindfulness and other strategies to help adolescents cope with mental health challenges.
- Psychodynamic Therapy explores how the past may influence current patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. It can be a little more challenging for young people to engage in, compared to other therapy types.
Or, you might want to explore therapy types well matched to more specific situations. For example:
- Family Systems Therapy helps all family members to understand and learn to better support each other.
- Art Therapy or other creative arts therapies are helpful for adolescents who have difficulty expressing their thoughts and emotions. You don’t need to be creative or good at art to benefit from it.
- Trauma-Focused CBT helps adolescents heal from traumatic experiences.
It’s important to consider different therapy types and how they resonate with you before choosing. If you’re not sure, your prospective therapist is a great person to talk it over with and help with the decision-making.
What to look for in a therapist for adolescents
Factors to take into account when choosing a therapist for adolescents include:
- Specialized therapists: It’s important to work with a therapist specialized in the treatment of adolescent mental health. These therapists often identify themselves as “child and adolescent therapists,” or will have “adolescents” or “teenagers” indicated as a clientele type on their website or online profile.
- Therapy type: Alongside this, you’ll also want to prioritize the therapy type that appeals to you.
- Qualifications: It can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see, with so many different provider types available. The main thing to be certain of is that you look for a currently licensed mental health professional. That said, if you think medication might be needed, you’ll want to make sure you see a psychiatrist. This particular type of mental health professional is able to prescribe.
- Relationship: The trusting relationship with a therapist is called the therapeutic alliance, and it’s the number one indicator of treatment efficacy. The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also enables you to ask about their experiences working with young people, what type of therapy they suggest, and what that will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding on a provider.