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Mental Health Is a Growing Problem for Adolescents | A Guide for Parents

Updated on February 22, 2022

Teenagers can be fickle people caught somewhere between being a child and learning how to be an adult. This span in life between around 13 and 18 years old can be tumultuous, emotional, and all-out challenging for parents.

However, sometimes teens step beyond the bounds of typical teenagerhood and enter the realm of dangerous or worrisome behaviors. In many cases, these behavioral issues can be linked to an underlying mental illness. 

Adolescents can be especially prone to mental illness, even though the problem is not quite as discussed or recognized as it should be by parents. Research indicates that 1 in 5 teens could be diagnosed with a mental disorder serious enough that it affects their everyday life or routine. Even more concerning, teen mental health problems have been on a steady incline for several years.

Common Teenage Mental Health Problems and Their Prevalence 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness gives this insightful breakdown of the current rates of mental illness among teens between 13 and 18 years old: 

  • Behavior or Conduct Disorders: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) – 10%
  • Anxiety Disorders: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, etc. – 8%
  • Mood Disorders: Major depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), bipolar disorder, etc.  – 11%


6 Factors That Can Contribute to Mental Health Issues in Adolescent Years 

Adolescent mental health problems can have varying underlying causes and risk factors that can be associated with an illness. These factors can be biological, genetic, and even cultural or environmental. Some of the most common include: 

  1. Genetic Factors – Teens that have a close relative with a mental health issue may be more likely to also develop a problem, even though the mental health issue can be completely different than that of a family member. For example, a teen may be more likely to have an eating disorder if a parent has a substance use disorder. 
  2.  Experienced Trauma – Trauma is perhaps one of the most common underlying factors for teenage mental health issues. Trauma can stem from past abuse, such as emotional, sexual, physical abuse or even neglect. Witnessing a violent act, surviving a major disaster (like a home fire or tornado, or losing a close relative can all be examples of experienced trauma. 
  3. Stress – Stress is a major risk factor for adolescent mental health concerns. Teens can be dealing with chronic stress just as much as an adult; some studies indicate teens report they are more stressed than adults. And, stress has prominent links with mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Stress can come from a lot of things, such as poverty and financial uncertainty within the household, high expectations from parents and teachers, and having too much to do and not enough time for downtime or sleep. 
  4. Dysfunction in the Family – Family dysfunction is a major risk factor for children and teens when it comes to adolescent mental health. In a study of young patients being admitted to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, two-thirds had been exposed to some kind of trauma at home, 89 percent lived in a disrupted family structure, and 71 percent had a parent with some kind of mental disorder. 
  5. Presence of Other Illnesses – Other underlying illnesses or conditions can be contributing factors to mental illness. For example, teenage depression and drug abuse are closely related, teens with developmental disorders or physical ailments can be at risk, and teens with an undiagnosed condition like ADHD or autism can be more at risk. 
  6. Issues with Gender or Sexual Identity – Teenagers who are going through the emotional challenge of questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity can also be more at risk of having mental health issues. LGBTQ youth are more prone to mental illnesses compared to their non-LGBTQ peers according to research, especially depressive disorders.


Differences Between Teen Males and Females in Mental Health

teen girl moody

Both boys and girls can have risks of mental health challenges during adolescence, but there can be significant differences between the two genders in how these issues present themselves.

Boys and Mental Health Issues

Boys are more at risk of having ADHD or a conduct disorder than girls, but they can also be prone to issues with mood disorders like depression and anxiety disorders just like girls. The rate of teen suicide is much higher among boys than girls. Boys are also much more likely to act out negatively, have anger issues, and take part in risky behavior due to an underlying mental illness than girls. A few facts to consider about boys and mental health issues: 

  • Boys are four times more likely than girls to have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 
  • Teen boys are more susceptible to the stigma associated with mental health disorders, so they may not speak up when to seek for help.
  • The suicide rate for teen boys is three times that of teen girls
  • Boys are also more likely than girls to use illicit drugs; 24.5 percent of males and 4 percent of females between 12 and 17 try illicit drugs.
  • Boys may also be more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol due to a mental health issue from the stigma associated with seeking professional help. 


Girls and Mental Health Issues 

Girls have a higher prevalence of certain mental health disorders, such as depression and eating disorders. Girls can also be more likely to romanticize or contemplate suicide, and they may be more likely to attempt suicide than boys, even though instances of death by suicide in boys is higher. On the most basic premise, girls can have more inward symptoms and not be so prone to acting out. A few other facts to consider about girls and mental health issues:

  • 90% of teens admitted for eating disorder treatment are girls
  • 75% of antidepressants prescribed to teens between 13 and 17 are prescribed for females 
  • The number of girls hospitalized for self-harm has quadrupled in the last 15 years.


Another note to consider, while the rates of teen drug use among boys are higher than for girls, girls are more likely to become addicted and need professional treatment.  

Furthermore, they are also prone to becoming addicted to a substance much faster than boys. Plus, girls using drugs or alcohol on a regular basis can make riskier choices about sex and may be more likely to commit suicide. 

Why Adolescent Mental Illness Is Often Overlooked

If your child were to hit the teen years and something physical was wrong, you would likely notice and act right away. However, when a teen is struggling emotionally or mentally, they are far less likely to get the treatment they need. 

In fact, the research covered by the University of Michigan states that on average, half of children and teens with a mental health disorder never get treatment. Why is there such a difference? Several factors could be at work, including: 

  • The stigma associated with having a child with a mental health condition (parents may be hesitant to seek treatment) 
  • The fear of treating psychological issues in children with prescription medication (parents and some medical professionals are apprehensive about psychotropic treatment)

Another major contributing factor to the underdiagnoses of mental health issues is the basic lack of knowledge among parents and caregivers. Many parents actually have no idea that teens can be so susceptible to things like depression, anxiety disorders, or even addiction.

Likewise, it is far easier to see an issue as simply “typical teen emotions” than it is to see and accept that behavior could actually be linked to an underlying psychological problem.

How to Help a Teen with Mental Health Issues as a Parent or Caregiver 

Parents and caregivers play the most vital role in helping a teen with mental health issues. Unfortunately, it is common for a parent or caregiver to see only the behavioral problems and not recognize those actions as signs of mental illness. Therefore, the first plan of action should include delving deeper into teen behavior to determine if there could be a bigger problem.

Some behaviors that can be linked to mental illness include:

  • Sleeping to an excessive degree, not sleeping well, or experiencing insomnia
  • Lack of interest in activity, time with friends and family, or once enjoyed activities 
  • Major personality shifts that could be deemed as drastically out of character
  • Excessive levels of secrecy or being paranoid 
  • Not caring about academics or a major decline in grades 
  • General disinterest in self-care (not bathing, grooming, etc.)
  • Obsessive thoughts or actions 
  • Promiscuity or sexual deviance 
  • Self-mutilation or self-harm 
  • Taking part in illegal activities, such as shoplifting or getting involved in group illegal activities  
  • Using or abusing prescription or over-the-counter medications 

Once you are dealing with a teen that is portraying some of these signs, it is critical to take note as a parent. Consider all aforementioned risk factors and whether a child could need professional help.

In many cases, teenage mental health problems can be treated with therapy, medication, or a combination of both. 

When to Seek Treatment Beyond Therapy and Medication 

Even though therapy and medication can be effective for helping some teens, there are just as many who may need more intensive therapy. As a parent, you must pay attention to the signs that a teen may be in crisis, and they may need further intervention for a more intense approach to treatment.

You should seek further treatment beyond medication and therapy if: 

  • Activities and behaviors are not corrected or at least improved after diagnosis and treatment
  • Your teen is romanticizing death and dying or has threatened or attempted to commit suicide.
  • Your teen seems severely depressed, anxious, or aggressive. 
  • Abusive behavior has become an issue (whether to you, peers, or someone else)
  • Your teen is refusing to go to school or shows disinterest in preparing for adulthood.
  • You suspect your teen is regularly using or abusing drugs or alcohol 

Taking drastic steps to intervene when a teen is in crisis is critical, and it can mean the difference between life and death. It is usually times like these when parents start looking at intensive care solutions like therapeutic boarding school or an inpatient residential treatment program. 

The Effectiveness of Residential Treatment Programs 

Residential treatment programs can be life-changing experiences for a teen that is struggling with behavioral issues related to mental health. A number of types of programs exist, such as therapeutic boarding schools that combine education with psychiatric treatment and residential substance abuse programs for teens specifically. These programs can be extremely effective because they tend to address: 

  • Emotional challenges and needs 
  • Behavioral problems linked to mental health
  • Medical needs and medicinal needs 
  • Educational challenges and needs
  • Social problems and peer-connection issues
  • Substance use or abuse issues 

While all programs vary in specifics, most will involve intensive one-on-one therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and various tiers of psychiatric therapy for mental illnesses. These treatment centers are designed to help a teen that has “gone off the rails” so they can get things back on track and lead fulfilling lives. 

In Closing: The Impact of Mental Health and Behavioral Issues On a Teen’s Future 

Mental health issues in the adolescent years can have dire consequences that affect the rest of the individual’s life if they are not treated properly and in a timely manner. Teens can end up facing legal woes or having a criminal record that follows them for many years. They can make significant academic mistakes that may negatively impact their future opportunities for employment.   

Further, things like teen pregnancy, risky sexual behavior choices, and drug use can come along with many new hardships that become lifelong challenges. These challenges, if left unaddressed, will most likely interfere with a teens’ ability to form and maintain healthy relationships.

As a parent, you have to recognize that a teen may not always have the ability to save themselves, especially when mental illness is involved. If you have a teen that is on a self-destructive path, reach out to us to learn more about residential treatment options, therapeutic boarding schools, and other options.

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