When we think of our teenage years, many times we think of being young and with little responsibility. Our biggest worry wasn’t what bills we would have to pay, but what we would do with our friends on Friday night. While being a young adult or adolescent is fun, it can also be difficult: there’s also a yearn for independence, constant biological, physical, and social changes, and angsty teen music that helps put words to our newfound feelings.
Mental health encompasses all emotions that have to do with our well-being and has become a hot-button topic as more people are understanding the full gravity and importance of having a balanced mental status. Adolescents are an especially unique population when it comes to mental health: more than 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14 (NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness). Acknowledging this difficult phase in life and understanding the specific barriers to this population can help us create multi-faceted solutions that are best equipped to create long-term change.
Three main barriers identified specifically with adolescents aged 10-19 include biological changes, emotional and mental development, and pressures about school or future professions.
Biological sexual processes
Teenagers will go through puberty and experience changes within their body. After years of knowing their body, new and sudden changes can be scary and intimidating, as kids will compare themselves to their peers and images on social media. Not only are their emotions raging during this time, but their physical appearance is constantly changing and evolving.
Emotional and mental development
Adolescents make the change from completely relying on their parents or guardians for food, clothes, and basic decisions to becoming young adults that take on more responsibility. This shift of independence is not only difficult on the teen themselves, but the family dynamic, as parents release control. We wouldn’t expect ourselves to learn new skills overnight, so learning new responsibilities and roles should be a constant development during this time.
A normal day for an adolescent starts early in the morning getting ready for school, 8 hours of school, followed by post-school activities or sports, possibly followed by homework or an after-school job. Education is their primary job currently, and many kids struggle with balancing all of their activities. They are not only participating in those activities, but also looking towards continuing their education through college, technical school, career, or helping with family. These years are the building blocks for their future and can be a huge stressor that causes anxiety about what their life will look like.
While there are many more barriers than just these three, identifying a few can help us start to empathize with these large life changes that are continuously happening during this time. These barriers can lead to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, and more. A few warning signs that an adolescent is struggling with mental health could be feeling sad or withdrawn, drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits, intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities.
Mental health issues can drastically decrease the quality of life of an adolescent. By identifying warning signs and understanding barriers, we can figure out how to best utilize our network of teachers, parents, community health workers, physicians, counselors, therapists, and more to help adolescents navigate mental health struggles.
Just as there are many barriers, there are many solutions. These three solutions utilize communication and service coordination skills to address the barriers listed above:
Starting a dialogue and continue the conversation
The first step in battling mental health issues is starting a discussion with your child or the adolescents you are close to. Empathize with the big life changes they are going through and use your active listening skills. After the first conversation, continue to be a supportive figure in their life and check-in to make sure they are feeling okay. If you’re unsure of how to do this, there are several resources online that help start that conversation, such as this article from Mental Health America (MHA).
Increase responsibility and independence accordingly
Delegating more responsibility to your teen can be a great way to demonstrate trust. As a teen transitions from child to young adult, they are looking for more independence and searching for their own passions and identity. Allowing them to explore their interests can promote social friendships and could prompt a career interest in the future.
Create a network of adults to help navigate adolescence
Working with a system of adults is the best way to promote mental well-being in all aspects of their lives. Each person plays their own role in listening, communicating, and offering solutions to issues at hand. When an adolescent feels supported in all aspects of their life, they are more likely to seek help and resources when they are not feeling well.
Overall, adolescents experience mental health issues at high rates, so understanding what barriers lead to mental health struggles is extremely important so that we see warning signs. Utilizing a network of adults for support, giving responsibility accordingly, and creating a conversation about our emotions and mental health can be the start of a solution to these issues.
Authors note: It is important to note that if you, or an adolescent, are having mental health issues, consult with your physician or therapist for a more comprehensive diagnosis and medical understanding before diagnosing yourself. For more information on mental health, a great resource is the National Alliance on Mental Illness.