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Mental Illness and Your Teen: 4 Scary but Necessary Questions

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Adolescence isn’t easy by any measure, for teenagers and parents alike. Between school, family and friendships, the teen years are chock-full of difficult changes all on their own. Emotional outbursts and frequent mood swings are normal parts of growing up, but sometimes these behavioral patterns indicate that a bigger issue weighs on your teen.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders, depression and bipolar disorder affect 20 percent of teens ages 13–18. These are difficult roads for any teen and parent to walk on, but these conditions shouldn’t have to be typical growing pains. It’s important to know that answers, hope and healing are available for parents of teens who face mental illness.

Does My Teen Have a Mental Illness?

As a loving parent devoted to your teen’s health, this might not be a question you want to ask, much less think about. But mental illnesses are a reality for thousands of teens. In the U.S., 1 in 5 children under the age of 18 already have, or will develop, a serious mental illness, and 50 percent of all life-long cases of mental illnesses begin by age 14. Some of the most common mental disorders among teens include anxiety disorders, attention-deficit disorder (ADHD), depression and bipolar disorder — all of which are treatable with the right care.

But how can you tell typical teenage behavior from symptoms of mental illness? At first, mental illness may masquerade as typical teenage attitudes and behaviors, but over time they arise more frequently and escalate in severity. If you suspect your son or daughter faces a mental illness, be vigilant of warning signs including:

  • Changing eating habits, such as not eating or binge-eating

  • Bouts of intense fear or panic for no apparent reason

  • Severe mood swings

  • Changes in sleeping habits

  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviors that could harm others

  • Difficulty concentrating or failing courses at school

  • Feeling sad or withdrawn for extended periods of time

  • Using drugs or alcohol

What If My Teen Won't Talk to Me About Their Struggles?

As a parent, you may feel that you’re naturally the first line of defense against your teen’s mental illness. Your son or daughter opening up to you about their depression, anxiety or other mental illness can make you feel validated as a parent, but your teen might not always seek your guidance. This is likely not a reflection of your parenting ability and doesn’t mean that your best efforts to help them have failed. Even if your teen doesn’t want to talk with you about their struggles, you aren’t powerless to help them cope with mental illness.

If you’ve tried starting a conversation about mental illness with your teen but to no avail, make sure they have ample resources for getting the help they need. While your teen might not talk to you, you can still ensure they have the option of talking with another trustworthy adult who cares. Make sure your teen has the contact information of a trusted family member, friend or relative and encourage your teen to call them if they don’t want to talk with you.

Outside of your personal network, teens can also find the ears they need from crisis counselors on national hotlines that are free and confidential, including:

  • Crisis Text Line: Teens in crisis can text “HOME” to 741741 to chat with a trained, volunteer counselor.

  • Suicide Prevention Hotline: Anyone can call 1-800-273-8255 to be immediately connected to someone who can help.

  • Trevor Project: LGBTQ+ teens can find the support they need by calling 866-488-7386, texting “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200 or chatting online with counselors.

  • Teen Line: Teens can get quality peer support by calling 310-855-4673, or texting “TEEN” to 839863.

  • HopeLine: To talk to a crisis counselor immediately, teens can call or text 919-231-4525 or 877-235-4525.

What If My Teen Is Using Drugs or Alcohol?

Not every teenager will experiment with drugs or alcohol, but if they struggle with a mental illness, they may be more apt to try dangerous substances. Mental illness and substance use disorders are often deeply intertwined: Teens might turn to drugs as a way to seek relief from anxiety, or they may develop depression from a weekend of binge drinking. Alcohol, marijuana, Xanax or other drugs may provide a temporary escape from the weight of a mental disorder, but drug use is far from a healthy coping mechanism and can lead to disastrous consequences.

Pinpointing drug use can be difficult as the symptoms of mental illness often mirror those of a substance use disorder. Keep a close eye on any stark behavioral changes as well as physical evidence of drug use. If you suspect your teen struggles with a mental illness and a substance use disorder, some behavioral signs to watch for include uncharacteristic lying, increased secrecy, and neglecting responsibilities. Physical evidence might include skin problems (e.g., scratch marks, scabs, etc.), bloodshot eyes, unintentional weight loss and unusual body odors (e.g., a chemical smell in sweat). Spotting drug paraphernalia in your teen’s bookbag or stashed away in their room could also be indicative of a substance use disorder. Look for items like empty aerosol bottles, aluminum foil, spoons, plastic baggies and lighters.

How Can I Help My Teen?

Regardless of how far your teen’s condition has progressed, you are never powerless to help them. If you are concerned that your son or daughter needs professional help for a mental illness or a substance use disorder, there are several steps you can take, including:

  • Have a conversation with your teen: Your relationship with your teen can set the stage for an open conversation about mental illness and its underlying causes, drugs and alcohol and more. Talking with your teen can give you insight into the severity of their condition and inform your next steps in getting help.

  • Talk with your teen’s pediatrician: Your family’s doctor will be familiar with your teen’s health history, including any indicators of physical or mental illness. Your pediatrician can talk with you about the symptoms you’ve observed, if and when medications might be necessary, and whether professional treatment is a viable option for your teen.

  • Get a referral to a mental health specialist: Mental health counseling can go a long way for adults and teens alike. Licensed therapists can help your teen understand their mental illness and its root causes so they can develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Call The Recovery Village Palmer Lake: If your teen struggles with addiction and a mental illness, professional treatment might be necessary to help them heal from the physical and mental aspects of substance use disorder. Calls to The Recovery Village Palmer Lake are free, and talking with a specialist will always be confidential. Call today to find the answers you need and get your teen the help they deserve.

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