Mental Health Warning Signs in Teenagers
By: Taylor French, LPC
Unfortunately, suicide rates among adolescents are increasing and it is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24 according to the CDC. As such, a common concern that counselors hear from parents of teenagers is how to recognize if their child is struggling with their mental health. The goal of this article is to give a brief overview of signs that your teenager may be struggling with their mental health.
Warning signs of mental health struggles, and more specifically suicide, can be broken down into four categories. The first category of warning signs are verbal signs that your child expresses to you, their friends/peers, or on social media. Verbal warning signs may include talking about hurting themselves or committing suicide. Other concern statements would be that individual feels they have no reason to live or do not care about anything. Additional verbal signs may be stating that they feel hopeless, do not believe things will get better, or that they feel like a burden. While these verbal warning signs do not indicate suicidality in and of themselves, they may indicate your child’s mental health is struggling and they need additional support.
The second category of mental health warning signs are behavioral observations you may see in your child. As a parent, you know your child and what their “norm” is and while this can change, particularly in adolescence, parents often notice sustained and significant changes if their teen is struggling with their mental health. These behavioral changes may be withdrawing from activities that they previously enjoyed and/or spending much less time with their friends. Isolation from ones’ family may be another warning sign, however, it is not uncommon for teenagers to spend less time with their family and more time with their friends. A parent may also notice that their child has had significant changes in their sleep or eating patterns such as sleeping and/or eating much less or much more than previously. It is not uncommon for teens struggling with their mental health to engage in riskier behaviors such as increased substance use, self-harm, or aggressive behavior. While experimentation is not an uncommon part of adolescence, these risky behaviors would go beyond what would be considered “normal” or “experimental” such as heavy use of drugs or alcohol. Signs of a severe mental health crisis, such as suicide, may be if your child is researching ways to end their life and taking action steps to obtain means to do so, visiting or saying goodbye to loved ones, or giving away important possessions. These behaviors may indicate that your child has made a decision to commit suicide.
The third category of mental health warning signs would be mood changes. Mood changes may include a frequent and prolonged depressed state, loss of interest in activities, and apathy. Anxiety and irritability are other mood changes that may indicate your child is struggling with their mental health. Signs of increased anxiety could be observed or reported fears and worries about typical part of their day, avoidance of new or difficult situations, physical complaints such as stomachaches, muscle tension, or headaches, significant sensitivity to criticism, and trouble concentrating. A mood warning sign for suicidal intent is if your child was previously experiencing negative mood and has a sudden improvement or relief rather than gradual improvement. This may indicate that an individual has decided to commit suicide and feels relief about their decision to end their suffering. The fourth category of mental health warning signs are physical changes. This may include significant weight loss or weight gain, increased fatigue, and changes in hygiene such as showering, brushing teeth, and cleaning.
An important question that often accompanies warning signs of mental health struggles in teens is how to differentiate between “normal” teen behavior or something more serious such as a mental health disorder. Adolescence accompanies many changes both physically, mentally, and in attitude. It is common for teenagers to have an increase in irritability or moodiness and to push boundaries. However, if their mood is beyond their usual pattern of dealing with stressors and is persisting for longer than a few days, it may indicate something more than “teenage behavior.” Additionally, if these mood changes are accompanied by other signs such as changes in sleep, eating, motivation, or energy, a significant decrease in academic performance, or significant changes in personal appearance and hygiene, it may indicate something more serious is going on.
Ultimately, the main way a parent can determine whether their child needs extra support or not is to have a conversation with their child about the changes they have observed and how their child is doing. For more information on how to talk to your child about mental health watch this video.
AFSP-American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Child Mind Institute
NAMI-National Alliance on Mental Illness