You may think your teen’s mental health is okay, but some teens with mental health issues may be struggling silently, unsure of how to reach out for help.
In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) declared mental health problems facing teens and children a national emergency that requires action and treatment. And suicide is now a leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 19 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But younger teens are at risk, too.
The COVID-19 pandemic added to the toll on teens’ mental health. According to a 2022 survey of high schoolers by the CDC, 37% reported that they experienced poor mental health in 2021. And 44% said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the year prior — the first year of the pandemic. Furthermore, 20% had seriously considered suicide, and 9% had attempted suicide.
Here’s how to protect their mental health, recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues, and know when it is time to seek professional help.
How to protect your teen’s mental health
Helping your teen starts with providing your love and support. These self-care tips can also help your teen protect their mental health. You may have to get creative to help them put these tips into practice.
Encourage them to get a good night’s sleep. Depending on their age, teens need between 8 and 11 hours of sleep each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Not getting enough sleep has been linked to depression and a higher risk of other mental health problems.
Limit usage of electronic devices. Video games, binge watching TV, and social media can all impact your teen’s mental health.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, people who spend more time on social media than on in-person interactions have an increased risk of anxiety and depression. To limit screen time, try to enforce a no-electronics-in-bedroom rule. You can also set timers on video game consoles.
Make sure they get regular exercise. This helps release endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in the brain. Plan active family outings, like nature hikes. Bonus: Walking in nature may help lower stress levels.
Suggest meditation. You can recommend free meditation apps, such as UCLA Mindful or Smiling Mind. The potential health benefits of meditation include helping to manage anxiety and depression.
Recognizing mental health issues in teens
Getting treatment starts with knowing the signs and symptoms of mental health problems in teens. According to the AAP, these include:
- Mood swings, anger, irritability, and tearfulness.
- Major changes in daily patterns, including in sleep and eating habits. Significant weight loss or weight gain.
- Struggling more than normal in school, for example, as indicated by failing grades in their favorite subject or not doing homework that is easy to complete.
- Losing interest in or quitting activities and things they once enjoyed.
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and social activities.
- Canceling plans with their best friends with little or no explanation.
- Getting a new set of friends who you’ve never met before or who your teen doesn’t want you to meet.
- Ongoing thoughts or worries.
- Refusing to talk about what’s bothering them.
- Obsessing over goals; worrying that if they don’t achieve these goals, their life will be ruined.
- Signs of drug, alcohol, or other substance use.
- Sexual activity or interest that’s new or more intense.
- Signs of self-harm, such as cuts and burns that your teen can’t explain well or tries to hide.
- Comments about death or suicide.
When to get professional help
If your teen has symptoms of mental illness that are severe or last longer than two weeks, take them to see their doctor or pediatrician. The doctor will do a medical evaluation to make sure nothing else is going on. If it’s a mental health issue, the doctor can refer your teen to a mental health professional to get an accurate diagnosis.
Mental health professionals include psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and mental health nurse practitioners. These professionals can start your teen on a treatment plan that’s right for them. Mental health treatment often includes a combination of medication and therapy.
What to do in an emergency
If your teen is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call, text, or chat 988 right away.
This new, nationwide, three-digit dialing code will connect you to trained mental health counselors of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It’s now known as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the previous Lifeline phone number at 1-800-273-8255.
Talking to counselors can help your teen work through their feelings and may help prevent self-harm and suicide.
If your teen is in a mental health crisis, call 911 or take them to the emergency room.