Teen Mental Health Causes and Dangers

A sad teen with head down on a desk

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It can be worrisome or even scary to think of your teen developing a mental health issue. But, just like it's important to monitor your teen's physical health, it’s essential to keep a watchful eye on your teen’s mental health.

Mental health issues often emerge during the tumultuous teen years. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics: "More than 14 million children and adolescents in the United States, or 1 in 5, have a diagnosable mental health disorder." Early intervention is one of the keys to successful treatment.

Prevalence of Mental Illness

Mental illness is fairly common among children and adolescents. In fact, approximately 22% of adolescents have a severe mental impairment, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. About half of all mental illness starts by the age of 14.

Having a mental illness isn't a sign of weakness or being "crazy." Just like certain physical health problems can happen to anyone, so can many mental health problems.

Unfortunately, mental illness sometimes carries a certain stigma that makes many teens and their parents hesitant to seek treatment. However, growing awareness about mental health issues—particularly about how common they truly are—is leading to more acceptance and understanding.

Types of Mental Health Issues that Impact Teens

It's important for parents to know about the common mental health issues found in teens. Mood disorders, including several types of depression, often begin during childhood. There are also nine anxiety disorders that are prevalent among adolescents.

Behavioral disorders, like oppositional defiant disorder and ADHD, may also become apparent during the teen years. Anorexia and bulimia, are most common in females but males may also develop eating disorders.

Although psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, are possible during the early to mid-teen years, these disorders usually don’t emerge until after age 18.

Causes of Mental Illness

The environment they live in and their life experiences play big roles in a child’s mental health. A teen who experienced sexual abuse or a major traumatic experience will be at a higher risk of mental illness, for example. Feeling loved, supported, and valued at home can help children cope with stressors they encounter in life, but these children may also develop mental health concerns.

A safe, stable environment can’t always protect a child from developing mental health issues. Biology, genetics, and life events also factor into a child’s likelihood of developing mental health problems.

Some children are genetically more vulnerable to mental illness than others. A family history of bipolar disorder, for example, can increase a teen’s risk of developing bipolar disorder.

Co-Morbid Substance Use Issues

Unfortunately, many teens with mental illness turn to substance use as a way to cope with their issues. They are at increased risk for using or becoming dependent on alcohol, prescription drugs, street drugs, or even over-the-counter medications.

Teens struggling with mental illness and substance use require specialized dual diagnosis treatment to help them find alternative ways to cope with their symptoms.

Dangers of Untreated Mental Illness

Unfortunately, as many as half of the teens with mental illness go untreated, according to a 2013 study conducted by Duke University. There are many reasons why teens don’t receive the mental health treatment they need.

Sometimes, parents don’t recognize the need or don’t have the means to get their child treatment. At other times, teens refuse services. Unfortunately, some geographical areas lack adequate mental health providers as well.

There are many dangers of allowing a mental health condition to go untreated. Some teens may drop out of school due to difficulties with academics, while others may turn to substance abuse or crime. Suicide is also a major risk for teens who aren’t receiving appropriate mental health care.

If your teen is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

There may be times in your teen’s life when their mental health may appear better than others. Stress, hormonal changes, and other environmental issues can impact a teen’s mood and behavior over time. However, it's important to treat any underlying issues, as mental health struggles are likely to reemerge in challenging times if left unaddressed.

Seek Help for Mental Health Problems

If you have concerns about your teen’s mental state, it’s important to get them treatment. Often, short-term treatment with a qualified mental health professional can make a big difference in your teen’s quality of life.

Talk to your teen's doctor if you have any concerns. A doctor can refer your teen for an evaluation with a qualified mental health professional. 

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.