Health & Science

4 ways to support a teen struggling with mental health issues

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The last two years have been difficult for just about everyone, but teenagers have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in particularly challenging ways. Between social isolation, shifting to virtual school, and losing many outlets for independence outside of the home like school sports and social events—teens are at higher risk than ever for developing mental health challenges like depression and anxiety.

In fact, a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that, “the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 have doubled,” particularly among older teens and girls. Some of the other mental health challenges that teens are at risk of developing include eating disorders and substance abuse disorders. Left untreated, mental health disorders can lead to academic challenges, risk-taking behaviors, self-harm, and even suicide.

Signs that your teen is struggling

The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists the following warning signs of potential mental health challenges in teens:

  • Excessive worrying, fear, or sadness
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
  • Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Thinking or talking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Frequent disobedience or aggression

If your child is exhibiting any of the signs above, it’s possible they may be struggling with their mental health. However, it’s important to keep in mind that mental health issues can show up differently for each individual, so following your intuition as a parent is just as vital as looking out for the more common signs and symptoms. 

4 ways to support your teen

1.  Assess and triage— Check in with your child to determine, as best you can, the urgency and severity of their distress. Have they had any thoughts about suicide? If so, you’ll need to find out if they have a specific plan and the means to carry it out—in which case you can contact 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If not, you can then talk about whether it’s a good idea to consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If they’re experiencing more mild distress, you can talk through some coping strategies with them that they could practice on their own, like journaling or deep breathing techniques.

2.  Equip them with mental health tools— Work with them to add helpful tools to their devices and spaces. For example, you can have them add mental health emergency numbers to their phone, like the NAMI Helpline, or the Crisis Text Line (741741). You can also download apps that are designed to help kids and teens with their mental wellness, like Calm Harm or Wysa. It can also be helpful to add screen-free coping tools like art supplies, pens and paper, or even a punching bag to their personal space. Talking with them about which mood-boosting activities and tools they would find most helpful can also help you learn more about specific ways to support them during difficult moments. 

3.  Hone your check-ins— Of course, there’s no better way to find out what’s going on with your teen than by asking them. However, if your kid isn’t very forthcoming with their feelings, or tends to give short, one-word answers, your verbal check-ins might not be very productive. Try to talk less, and listen more—being sure to give teens lots of space to think and respond. They may close up if they feel they’re being interrogated. It’s also important to balance these serious talks about their mental health with fun and casual chats about lighter topics. This can help keep the anxiety down and promote more free-flowing and open conversation.

4.  Find a reliable mental health care provider— Having an established relationship with a therapist or counselor can be a vital connection for teens during times of crisis. However, it’s also helpful to work with a mental health professional during the happier times as well, in order to reinforce positive behaviors and process past memories. Of course, therapy is often expensive and not accessible to everyone, so doing the research now and looking into which options might work for your family could pay off later. You can start by taking a look at these free and low-cost therapy options available to kids and families.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.