Mental Disorders Rampant Among Teens

Some sobering statistics from ChildTrends:

  • Almost 1 in 4 boys and more than 1 in 3 girls in grades 9-12 report symptoms of depression (which is defined as feeling sad or hopeless almost EVERY DAY for TWO WEEKS or longer)
  • About 1 in 12 adolescents reported experiencing a major depressive episode during the past year
  • 10% of adolescents reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder including OCD, social anxiety disorder, PTSD, and phobias
  • 5% of adolescents report symptoms of an eating disorder

Substance abuse disorders frequently go hand in hand with mental disorders. In addition, mental
disorders are often associated with other negative emotional and behavioral patterns in
adolescence—including impaired relationships, lower academic performance, a higher risk of
unprotected sex and teen pregnancy, and increased involvement with the juvenile justice system.

However, many adolescents who experience these issues do not have a mental disorder, and many
youth with mental disorders do not have these problems. The single most disturbing potential
consequence of adolescent mental disorders is suicide—the third leading cause of death among 10-
to 24-year-olds in the United States. Although suicide can have multiple causes, 90 percent of
adolescents who commit suicide had a diagnosable mental disorder, and up to 60 percent of them
were suffering from depression at the time of their death.

As is true for physical health, mental health encompasses more than the
absence of disorders. Researchers have considered a number of
dimensions of positive mental health, one of which is “resilience.”

Resilience has been defined as “the ability of an individual to function
competently in the face of adversity or stress.” An adolescent who is
resilient is likely to enter adulthood with a good chance of coping well—
even if he or she has experienced difficult circumstances in life.

An adolescent who is resilient has an advantage when it comes to meeting
the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood, even if he or she has
experienced circumstances such as poverty, health problems, or strained
family relationships.

In the context of mental health, resilience can be viewed as the ability to
handle stress positively. Adolescents’ stress can come from multiple
directions—school; relationships (with friends, romantic partners, and
parents); hormonal and physical changes associated with adolescence;
impending decisions about college and career; pressures to conform or to
engage in risky behaviors; family financial problems; dangerous
neighborhoods; and more.

Resilience can also be viewed as the product of the stressors an adolescent
is currently bearing; the adolescent’s genetic temperament; his or her
competence both for independence and for seeking help when
appropriate; and the social support provided by family members and

Research has identified a number of characteristics of adolescents that are
associated with resilience. Among these characteristics are having:

  • One or more adults providing caring support;
  • An appealing, sociable, easygoing disposition;
  • Good thinking skills (“intelligence” as traditionally defined, but also
    judgment and social skills);
  • One or more talents (things a person does really well);
  • Belief in oneself and trust in one’s ability to make decisions;
  • Religiosity or spirituality.

The good news is adolescents can reduce stress, and promote resilience and other aspects of positive mental health with a number of strategies:

  • Get regular exercise (e.g., yoga, running, martial arts, team or individual sports)
  • Eat regular meals
  • Avoid using excessive caffeine (coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, etc.)
  • Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco
  • Learn relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation,
  • Develop assertiveness skills (e.g., how politely but firmly to say “no,” or to state one’s
  • Rehearse and practice responses to stressful situations
  • Break down large tasks into smaller, more attainable tasks
  • Learn to recognize and reduce negative self-talk. Challenge negative thoughts about
    oneself with alternative neutral or positive thoughts
  • Avoid demanding perfection from oneself or others; instead, learn to feel good about
    doing a competent or “good enough” job
  • Take a break from stressful activities or situations. Engage in a hobby, listen to music, or
    spend time with a pet
  • Build a network of friends who can help one to cope in positive ways

These three reports are excellent, easy to read and understand, and should be shared widely.

The Mental Health Disorders brief presents the warning signs of mental disorders; describes the types of mental disorders and their prevalence and trends; discusses the consequences and risk of mental disorders; presents treatment options and barriers to accessing mental health care; and provides mental health resources.

The Access to Mental Health Care brief describes barriers to treatment of adolescent mental health disorders; discusses the connection between insurance status and access to mental health treatment; and explains funding for adolescent mental health services.

The Positive Mental Health: Resilience brief presents key research findings on characteristics that are associated with resilience; describes program strategies that promote resilience; discusses links between resilience and avoidance of risk-taking behaviors; and provides helpful resources on the topic of resilience.

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