An Invisible Problem: Teen Mental Health Issues Going Unaddressed

Recent studies suggest that teens today have more mental health disorders than prior generations and that these problems often go untreated.

Are Today’s Teens More Troubled?

In one study, published in the Clinical Psychology Review, researchers at five universities analyzed the responses of 77,576 high school or college students who, between 1938 through 2007, took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). (The MMPI is a frequently used personality test made up of 550 true-false questions that describe the individual’s feelings and actions.)

The researchers found that the number of young people who struggled with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues in 2007 was five times greater than in 1938.

When asked about the reasons for the increase in teen mental health problems, answers from adolescents and researchers ranged from increased pressure to succeed and greater focus on wealth, looks, and status, to a fast-paced lifestyle, higher divorce rates, and too many overprotective parents who don’t instill real-world coping skills in their children.

Some experts have questioned the study’s findings, explaining that heightened awareness of mental health issues and greater willingness to acknowledge painful emotions have led more teens to admit their struggles and seek help, rather than an actual increase in mental health problems. Others have asserted that the sample data weren’t representative of all young people since many who completed the MMPI questionnaire were students in psychology courses at college.

A Shortage of Teen Mental Health Treatment

Not only is it possible that more teens are plagued with mental health disorders than ever before, but research shows that about half aren’t receiving the treatment they need.

A study in the journal Pediatrics found that roughly 13 percent of American teens have at least one of the six most common mental disorders: anxiety disorder/panic disorder (.7%), eating disorders (.1%), depression (3.7%), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (8.6%) and conduct disorder (2.1%). What’s worse, only about half of these teens have been seen by a mental health professional.

According to researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there is a shortage of adolescent mental health experts, and teens are the ones suffering.

“We need to raise awareness that most of the problems that we see in adults in terms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, even psychosis, begin in adolescence, some in childhood,” NIMH researcher Dr. Kathleen R. Merikangas said in a Reuters Health article. “We need to identify these kids so that we can prevent these conditions from interfering with their development – and life.”

Signs of Teen Mental Health Problems

In order to get teens the help they need to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults, parents need to be on the lookout for the warning signs of a mental health problem. Some red flags to watch for include the following:

  • Excessive anger, grief, sadness, guilt, fear, or worry
  • Substance use
  • Obsessive dieting, exercise, binge eating, or concerns over appearance and body image
  • Acting recklessly, breaking the law, or endangering self or others
  • Hurting other people (or animals) or destroying property
  • Thinking their mind is controlled or out of control
  • Falling behind in school
  • Losing interest in things they once enjoyed
  • Being isolated or withdrawn
  • Talking about or alluding to suicide or death
  • Unexplained changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Inability to focus, concentrate or make decisions

What Parents Can Do to Help

Mental health disorders should never be ignored. Left untreated, teens with emotional and psychological issues are more likely to fail in school, abuse drugs, get in trouble with the law, fall into a negative peer group, and develop unhealthy relationships with friends, romantic partners, and family.

Your teen’s mental health is equally as important as their physical health. Just as you bring your child to the doctor for check-ups, you need to monitor their mental and emotional development. If you suspect a mental health disorder, talk to your doctor or find a qualified adolescent mental health professional.

If a more intensive intervention is needed, consider wilderness therapy programs, therapeutic boarding schools, and residential treatment centers for teens. These programs can help teens manage their mental health disorders, learn better coping skills, and nurture healthier relationships.

There are also a few steps parents can take to support their teen’s mental well-being. Setting high but realistic expectations lets teens know what is expected of them and allow them to build confidence when they achieve goals.

In addition, parents should empower their teens to work through the emotional issues that interrupt their lives. For example, parents can help their teens identify the sources of their stress and anxiety and brainstorm healthy ways to cope. By doing so, parents not only help their teens through the immediate dilemma but also teach their kids how to work through future problems on their own.

With your guidance and support – and your wisdom to know when to seek help – your teen can learn to manage their mental health disorders without carrying emotional issues and negative coping mechanisms into adulthood.