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Last Updated on December 13, 2021

Due to the unique stressors of the teenage years and the overwhelming amount of physical, emotional, and social changes, it is common for teens to experience increased levels of stress, irritability, worry or sadness. Sometimes it may be hard to distinguish between what may be expected behavior during the teenage years or if there could be a deeper issue going on. 

Due to the unique stressors of the teenage years and the overwhelming amount of physical, emotional, and social changes, it is common for teens to experience increased levels of stress, irritability, worry or sadness. Sometimes it may be hard to distinguish between what may be expected behavior during the teenage years or if there could be a deeper issue going on. 

Throughout this article, we will discuss the risk factors that can contribute to mental disorders among adolescents and warning signs to look out for in your teen. By noticing any concerning changes in your child, you can connect them with any support they may need for their mental health and well-being.

What Causes Mental Illness in Adolescents?

According to Mental Health America, half of the individuals who will develop a mental disorder in their lifetime will start exhibiting symptoms by the time they are fourteen. While there is no singular cause for mental disorders, there are risk factors that make someone more susceptible to develop one. Genetics play a significant role, as a teen that has a family history of mental illness is more likely to develop one themselves. 

For individuals with a genetic predisposition, stress may cause symptoms of mental illness to emerge for the first time. Teenagers face a multitude of stressors every day, as they navigate relationships with peers, academic pressure, and developing their sense of self. There is often an intense amount of pressure on teens: to ‘fit in’, present themselves a certain way on social media, perform academically, figure out a career path, and explore questions around relationships as well as sexual and gender identity. High levels of stress may contribute to the development of mental disorders in teens. Other risk factors include problems at home and experiencing abuse or violence (including bullying).

For more information about mental health and well-being during adolescence, visit BetterHelp.

Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Adolescents

It can be challenging to pinpoint expected teenage behavior from the presence of mental illness. It is important to look for significant changes in behavior that persist for weeks or months, and seem to be negatively interfering with your teen’s life- whether at home, school or socially.

Common mental health concerns that may emerge in teenage years include anxiety disorders, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, psychosis, self-harm, and risky behaviors such as substance use.

While each has its own distinct set of symptoms, some general warning signs that may indicate the presence of a mental disorder in teens include:

  • Persistent sad mood or feelings of hopelessness
  • Drastic shifts in mood and energy levels
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Difficulty with sustaining focus or concentration
  • Extreme worry or panic
  • Avoiding certain situations due to fear
  • Increased irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Preoccupation with dieting, restricting certain foods, body size/shape, excessive exercise, etc.
  • Engaging in repetitive rituals and distress if unable to
  • Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Isolating oneself from others
  • Substance use
  • Self-harm behaviors
  • Suicidal ideation

If you or someone you care about is experiencing thoughts of suicide, reach out for help immediately through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

Seeking Support 

If you notice any of these warning signs, it is important to connect your teen with the support they need. Offer a safe space for your child to share what they are experiencing and ask how they would feel about talking with a professional. You can then discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor or a mental health professional. The sooner your child gets connected to the appropriate treatment, the sooner they can move towards a fuller understanding of what they are experiencing, developing healthy coping techniques and improving their quality of life.

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