If the notion of adolescence only conjures quirky images of awkward first kisses, homecoming dances and stress about college majors, it’s time for a serious reality check.
Being a teenager is not easy, and the emerging research on mental illness in teenagers is harrowing. At any given time 20% of our youth struggle with a mental illness. Nearly one in three adolescents (31%) will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18. And research indicates there is a 2X increase in depression from ages 13 to 18.
These conditions are not something teens just need to ‘get over’ either. 16% of American students have reported considering suicide, 13% have developed a plan, and 8% indicated making an attempt within the past year. A teenager takes his or her life every 100 minutes. 157,000 youth are treated in emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries annually.
Why Are So Many Teenagers Struggling?
It’s impossible to pinpoint a single culprit for this epidemic. Some experts argue that teenagers have always struggled with mental health conditions - we just happen to have more awareness about the signs and symptoms. However, new research points to social, academic and familial causes for the increase in teens each year who report a depressive episode - up 37 percent since 2005.
Social Media and Technology
95% of teenagers report having access to a smartphone, and 45% of teenagers indicate that they are online “almost constantly.” And let’s be honest: all that tweeting, snapping, and Instagramming takes up a serious chunk of time. It also consumes significant mental and emotional energy.
It’s too early to tell the long-term effects of social media on brain development and mental illness. However, some studies already show a co-morbid relationship between mental health and problematic social networking.
We all know the infamous ‘highlight reel’ phenomenon where users often display their best self online. As a result, people are constantly comparing themselves to their seemingly ‘perfect’ peers, classmates, and role models. Separating fantasy from reality can be challenging - even when people understand the images are altered, airbrushed, and enhanced.
Teenagers define themselves by their peer groups and social status. These markers provide a sense of self-worth and validation. It represents the differentiation from the family-of-origin into becoming a unique self with a unique identity.
However, social media can complicate this differentiation process. Friendships (and even the sense of self) can feel fake and inauthentic - especially when much of one’s time centers on virtual communication.
Think school is easier than the real world? Research suggests otherwise. 45% of teenagers report feeling stressed ‘all the time.’ When asked to identify what stresses them out the most, 25% said teachers and about 10% reported college.
Some stress can, of course, be healthy. It can motivate and discipline people to set and accomplish meaningful goals. However, chronic stress can be debilitating, as it may affect one’s physical and psychological health.
Some teenagers turn to harmful methods, such as using substances or overeating, to cope with the stress. They may also isolate from friends and loved ones and become withdrawn, depressed, or overly anxious. Concerningly, over one-third of teens (34%) report that they do “nothing” to try to manage their stress.
Most students experience academic pressure, but the pressure can be especially cutthroat at elite schools designed for students to be admitted to prestigious universities. These students may spend every waking hour studying, attending prep courses, and engaging in extracurricular activities - all to meet the increasing collegiate demands.
Anxiety and depression can run in families. People who have first-degree relatives with mental health challenges, may have a higher risk for developing the same issues.
The family system is essential for a teenager’s livelihood. Any abuse in the household - whether physical or emotional - can wreak havoc on one’s development. Children and teenagers are both susceptible to the residual effects associated with such trauma.
Additionally, parents may unwittingly increase the academic pressure on their teens by frequently checking in on grades, asking about essays and tests and involving themselves in their children's daily routine. Parents who push their teens to study more and engage in prep courses may be giving their kids the message that they can't do it on their own which can rob them of a sense of autonomy and accomplishment.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Although increased awareness has helped shed light on a frightening epidemic, awareness alone is not enough. Mental illnesses are medical conditions; they are not choices or phases. They are not just something that a teenager “grows out of,” and believing otherwise can damage the relationship with the teen in your life.
Understand The Condition
You don’t need to have a condition yourself to learn about it. Education can empower you on how to best understand - and support - your teenager. Remember that you don’t need to necessarily identify why your teenager has this condition. Instead, you need to learn how it impacts him or her and what can help promote recovery.
Foster Open Communication
If you want to address your concerns, you must convey an unconditional sense of compassion and openness. Teenagers can detect inauthenticity immediately; they can also detect when you are making a situation about you rather than them.
Stay calm and level when talking- even if your teenager becomes combative or defensive. Use I-statements to address how you feel. Let your teenager know that you want to support him or her. Remember that your job is not to “fix” the problem. Your job is to listen, love, and offer a sense of warmth and safety.
Encourage Professional Help
Anxiety and depression in teenagers can be scary. But, the right treatment can make a profound difference in your teenager’s mood and functioning. While there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, the combination of psychotherapy and medication tends to be one of the best treatment methods. That said, it can be a trial-and-error process to find the right approach.
Are you a teenager looking for a safe place to talk about your struggles? Are you a concerned parent wanting to consult about your child? I’m here to help. Contact me today to learn more about my services.