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Early Warning Signs of Mental Health Issues in Adolescence

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Adolescence is, in general, a challenging time even for the most privileged of youths. Hormones, physical and psychological development, and changing social relationships all contribute to a time of strong emotions, both positive and negative.

G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association (APA), famously described adolescence as a time of “storm and stress,” which for many parents of teenagers must sound incredibly accurate. Maybe even a little downplayed.

For some families, though, the storms of adolescence can be incredibly dark.

The teen years, more broadly defined as those between the ages of 13 and 21, are also the time when the first signs of mental illness generally appear. In fact, approximately 70 percent of individuals who have a diagnosed mental health issue experienced the onset of symptoms prior to the age of 18.

It is estimated that right now in Canada, just over 1.2 million children and youth are living with a mental illness. And according to data gathered in Canada over the last decade, mental health issues among young people are on the rise.

Mental health issues typically present with recognizable symptoms. However, these symptoms can go unnoticed in the midst of normal adolescent development, which means that the disorders may go untreated until they have progressed to the stage where they present a significant impact on both the young person in question as well as their whole family.

Since parents already have so much on their plates, they typically don’t have the time to become experts at recognizing the early signs of mental health issues.

Thankfully, many experts have given their advice on how to recognize these early signs. Read on to discover some of the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to recognize them in your teen.

1. Decline in personal care. More than just having a messy room or neglecting to brush their hair, a decline in personal care—such as refusal to shower, change clothes, or eat—or a significant change in weight can be an indication of depression, anxiety, or other psychiatric problems.

2. Withdrawal. I’m talking here about withdrawing from friends, family, and formerly enjoyed activities. People who are experiencing mood disorders, symptoms of psychosis (such as hallucinations or voices), or other problems often avoid people and hobbies they used to enjoy.

3. Change in school performance. Grades may fluctuate throughout a youth’s educational career, but when a straight-A student begins failing their courses, it may be a sign of some personal struggles.

4. Flat affect. Everyone is familiar with the highs and lows of adolescent emotions. When a teen doesn’t experience these highs and lows but instead shows little to no emotional expression, it may be the result of the onset of a mental illness.

5. Excessive sleep. While teens do need more sleep than they did in their younger years, if they can never seem to get out of bed to the point that it affects their regular functioning, no matter how much rest they get, it could be an indication of depression or other disorders.

6. Disordered thinking. Is your teen having bizarre thoughts (such as strange beliefs about one’s self or about the world), problems expressing their thought processes, or difficulty concentrating or remembering things? It could be a sign of a problem.

7. Unusual or uncharacteristic behaviour. I’m not just talking about listening to music that’s obviously terrible. This is normal in every generation of teenagers. But rather, are they having outbursts, acting bizarrely, or showing aggression?

8. Talk of death, suicide, or self-harm. For obvious reasons, this should always be taken seriously. It can be a life-threatening symptom.

9. Substance use. While some amount of substance use experimentation can be seen as a teenage rite of passage, we need to understand that sometimes substance use is used to mitigate the symptoms of mental illness. For instance, alcohol can temporarily suppress early signs of schizophrenia—like visual/auditory hallucinations. If substance use is going beyond occasional experimentation, it should always be taken seriously.

I have to acknowledge that any of the above signs, to some extent, could be a normal part of adolescence. In the dozens of presentations I’ve given to parent groups about mental health and addiction in their teen years, there is almost always a moment when we acknowledge, usually with humour, and often sheepishly, that teens are often messy, or antisocial, or sleep excessively.

So are we pathologizing “normal” teenage behaviour?

One or two of these signs can be normal in the average teen. However, several symptoms appearing at once could signal a problem, especially when the symptoms are prolonged (long-lasting), recurring (the symptoms return over and over), and severe (they impair a person’s normal daily function to a significant degree).

Finally, there is one more sign of mental health struggles that should not be ignored. Indeed, this is the most important sign: when your child or loved one tells you something is wrong.

Out of a desire to protect our children, we as parents often have the impulse to downplay symptoms or encourage our teens to just push through, try harder, and not be negative. But by doing this we are ignoring valuable insights from our teens’ own lives and perspectives.

More than anything else, when our teens ask us for help, we should listen. That way, even if we miss every other symptom, we can make sure they get the help they need.

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