As a parent, this pandemic has thrown me for a loop. I can’t tell if my son has a serious mental health issue, if he is just reacting to the consequences of the coronavirus, or if it’s just typical teen angst.
He’s been much more withdrawn lately. But isn’t everyone? We are all social distancing and not spending time with friends like we used to. But recently, he’s always irritable or sleeping. And while he does remote learning, I can tell he isn’t concentrating.
It’s More Than a Mood: Identifying Adolescent Mental Health and Illness
I don’t know whether to be concerned or dismiss his moodiness as common teenage behavior. I don’t want to miss signs of a serious mental illness, because I know the consequences of that could be deadly.
So, how can I tell if this is serious or not?
Is It Just a Phase, or Does Your Child Have Signs of Mental Illness?
Teenagers have a lot going on. With school, extracurriculars, and friend/family drama, there’s a lot to balance. And on top of that, throw in hormones and puberty and there’s no wonder teens are known to be moody.
But what if it’s something more? How can you tell the difference between usual teen attitudes and mental health concerns?
Certain behaviors go beyond the normal scope of teenage angst. These include:
- A drop in grades, disinterest or apathy about school
- Withdrawing from friends or activities they used to like
- Atypical levels of irritability (including the inability to control anger or violence)
- Changes in sleep patterns (including sleeping all day, not getting up for school, inability to sleep, or sleeping more than 11 hours)
- Altered levels of energy
- Variations in concentration level or completing tasks
- Variations in appetite
- Recent onset of guilt
- Variations in motivation
- Thoughts of suicide or suicidal behavior (such as self-harm)
- Breaking the law or frequently getting in trouble at school
- Binge drinking, turning to substances frequently
- Lying to cover up risky behavior
If your teen is showing signs of a mental illness, remember that it’s not uncommon, and adolescent programs are available. In Kentucky alone, 29 percent of teenagers have experienced prolonged symptoms of depression while 15 percent have had serious suicidal thoughts.
It’s important to look out for changes in your teen’s behavior. If they used to be highly motivated and energetic, and now they’re lethargic and disinterested, it’s likely a mental illness, not a mood.
It’s a good idea to sit down with your teen early on to have open and honest communication and see what you can do to help or if there is anything they want to tell you. Keep in mind, they might not even know what is happening or how to express these feelings.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you aren’t sure whether or not your teen’s behavior is something more serious, checking with a therapist, your child’s doctor, or a school administrator can help.
But what’s considered normal? These behaviors are expected from teenagers:
- Wanting to stay up late and sleep in
- Moodiness, frustration, and some irritability
- Stressing about grades
- Testing the limits (including occasionally getting in minor trouble or defying household rules)
- Experimentation with substances
- Wanting privacy
Of course, the coronavirus presents new challenges for teens and their mental health that makes it even harder for parents to pinpoint mental illness.
Back to School During the Coronavirus
On top of everything teens already have to deal with, now they also have to return to school in the middle of a pandemic.
The teenage years are already a stressful time in life. Teenagers have always had to deal with cliques, drama, school, family, friends, extracurriculars, hormones, and puberty.
Today’s teens are trying to navigate all of those minefields in the midst of the coronavirus. That means figuring out remote learning, not being able to see their friends and not being able to make new ones.
Teenagers, who don’t have the best management skills, now have to sit in front of the computer all day. If they do physically go to school, they have to develop extra hygiene habits and constantly wear a mask. Even before the coronavirus, teenagers weren’t known for cleanliness.
Most teenagers aren’t able to participate in extracurriculars anymore. What used to be a passion or an outlet for teens is now gone. They have to deal with isolation, a lack of socializing, and no access to clubs or sports.
The coronavirus has been known to contribute to mental illnesses for everyone due to isolation, anxiety about the virus, and job loss. So it comes as no surprise that it also has an impact on teenagers’ mental health.
If you have noticed a change in your teenager’s behavior since the coronavirus, it’s important to check in with them, connect them with a counselor, and/or talk to their doctor. Creating open communication and supporting your teen with their mental health concerns will do wonders for their wellbeing and your relationship.
While teenagers are now spending so much time online, it’s important to remember the psychological impacts of social media and technology.
Teens and Mental Health in the Digital Age
Another relatively new pressure for teenagers is managing their online interactions. One of the biggest problems teenagers face on the internet is cyberbullying. In fact, a majority have dealt with it. According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of teenagers have experienced bullying or harassment online.
A major reason for the widespread prevalence of cyberbullying is that it’s easier for bullies to target others from behind a screen.
Another pressure that teenagers face online is being pressured to provide explicit pictures or being sent images they didn’t request. As many as 25 percent of teenagers have been sent unwanted, explicit photos while 7 percent have had their explicit pictures spread without permission.
With apps that allow pictures to disappear right away, explicit pictures have become more common and easily shareable. This amplifies the pressure from peers to send and receive these images. This can also lead to a host of other problems that could follow them into adulthood.
Sexting, which includes the exchange of explicit photos, is a problem everywhere, including Kentucky. According to the Kentucky Center for School Safety, 40 percent of teenage girls cite peer pressure as their reason for posting explicit images.
The internet provides more channels and platforms for teenagers to be pressured into sending explicit pictures or to get bullied. And that’s not even including the pressures brought on by other forms of social media.
Popular social media apps like Instagram promote people to display the best versions of themselves. They post their best moments, wearing their best clothes while displaying their favorite brands. And there’s no doubt that filters and photoshopping are being used.
Being constantly exposed to the best versions of their peers creates a lot of pressure for teenagers. They feel the pressure to have certain brands/things while also comparing themselves to others.
Everyone on social media shows their best times. So, when a teenager’s life appears to not measure up, this can cause emotional and psychological turmoil. These apps encourage comparison of things like body types, material goods, and even status in the form of likes and karma.
It would be an understatement to say that social media presents opportunities to harm a teenager’s mental health. The pressures mean that teenagers are comparing everything about themselves (their body type, clothes, lifestyle, etc.) to others. This can cause anxiety, depression, and even eating disorders.
In today’s day and age, it’s more important than ever to keep an eye out for your children, foster an open dialogue with honest communication, and involve a therapist, school administrator, or doctor if you start noticing the signs of a mental illness or simply don’t know what to do.
Frequently Asked Questions
What causes mental health issues in teenagers?
There are many things that could contribute to the development of a mental illness in teenagers. Some of these factors include severe childhood trauma (which includes all forms of abuse), losses (such as losing a parent), and neglect.
What are the most common mental illnesses in teenagers?
Common mental illnesses among teenagers include anxiety and mood disorders. Teenagers also frequently have behavior disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other attention disorders.
How common is mental illness in teenagers?
Approximately one out of every five teenagers in the United States have a severe mental health illness.
If you have noticed changes in your teenager’s behavior and don’t know what to do, we’re here for you. We have an experienced and encouraging team here at SUN Behavioral Kentucky who are ready to help identify what your teenager needs and what treatment will be most effective. Learn more about our adolescent programs or get started by calling 859-429-5188.