The teenage years are fraught with confusion, a desire for independence, high emotions, changing hormones and a plethora of other challenges. As if growing up on its own isn’t hard enough, being a teen faced with a mental health disorder can feel like an added burden to an overwhelming life.
If you are a parent, coach, teacher, mentor or work with youth in any capacity, mental illness in teens has likely affected your interactions. In this tricky phase of brain development and personal growth, you’ll need to adapt to meet teens where they’re at and handle situations differently than you would with adults.
The aim of this article is to aid you in how to help someone with mental illness using concrete tools and tips that you can implement no matter your role or your background.
What is mental illness?
There has been a generational shift in how young people understand and talk about mental health. While openly discussing mental illness was taboo just a few decades ago, it’s now commonplace to discuss your personal struggles and find comfort in a community that faces the same challenges.
If talking about mental health leaves you feeling behind the times, here’s what you need to know about what mental illness is.
Mental illness refers to a wide range of diagnosable disorders, like anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and the like. While each mental disorder has unique symptoms and associated behaviors, every disorder causes impairment in daily functioning. This means that the psychological distress of the condition causes disruptions in daily life.
Mental illness can affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood and behavior. While many people may feel mild feelings associated with the condition, someone who has a clinical diagnosis will feel the symptoms severely. Someone with a mental health condition feels unable to control or manage negative feelings or behavior.
Mental illness in teens
Mental illness is all too common, especially among young people. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that one in five adolescents between the ages of nine and 17 has a diagnosable mental health condition. The most common disorders among teens are anxiety, mood, attention and behavior disorders.
Mental illness in teens is often dismissed as moodiness, or characteristic of their age. However, there are severe consequences for mental health issues that are left untreated. Sadly, the leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24 years is suicide.
How to help someone with mental illness
Learning how to help someone with mental illness is a process, and drastic change won’t happen overnight. However, the aid you do provide and the care you show can make a lasting impact. It’s important for teens who struggle with mental disorders to develop trust, feel understood and receive support.
Consider your expectations
Depending on the diagnosis and the severity of the distress, each child will have different capabilities. Adjusting expectations may be necessary to accommodate these impairments, although it’s still important to have high hopes for each individual.
Consider that a child on the team you coach may perform well athletically, but feel ill-equipped to be interviewed for the school news. If you’re a teacher, you may have a student who does well on tests but can’t seem to sit still in class.
You may find ways to make accommodations for these students who struggle with specific tasks, like having your player write down answers to interview questions beforehand or using a standing desk for a restless student.
Every child needs structure, especially those who are prone to mental health disorders. In fact, one of the primary means of treatment used by mental health care professionals is to implement structure.
- A teen who struggles with an eating disorder will benefit from a planned meal schedule and working with a dietician to establish healthy eating patterns
- An adolescent who faces social anxiety will need a framework for interacting with others and regular opportunities to practice in controlled and natural settings
- A teen who has depression may benefit from a strict sleep schedule, planned activities and weekly therapy sessions
- A teen who has ADHD will need specific guidelines for class and clear consequences and rewards for outlined behaviors
Structure is good for everyone, and the case is no different for mental health in teens.
Understand specific disorders
If you have a teen in your life who is faced with a mental health disorder, you can improve your interactions by learning more about the specific disorder. It can be easy to fall into pathologizing a teen, however, the goal of learning more is to grow in understanding and find ways to make relating easier and more fruitful, and reduce potential stressors.
Get help from local providers
It’s not up to you to treat mental illness in teens. While you can help with mental illness by providing support, structure and encouragement, it’s not your responsibility to “cure” a mental health condition. Talk to the teen’s parents or caregivers and see if you can help connect the teen to resources or therapy.
Involve the school system
All children who attend publicly funded schools are entitled to special education services if they meet the requirements laid out by their individual state. If it can be proved that a mental illness is interfering with education attainment, whether that stems from social anxiety or difficulty focusing, your teen could be entitled to free services and helpful accommodations in the school setting.
Help with mental illness
If you have a teen who is struggling with a mental health disorder, there is help available. Reach out to the Light Program to find out more.