It’s been often discussed that teens are experiencing more symptoms of mental disorders in teens today than ever. In fact, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy recently issued a public health advisory on the mental health challenges confronting youth GeneralCompounding problems, from a bleak labor market to global warming, to an ongoing global pandemic, are affecting countless teenagers facing the prospect of growing up in a world that might be less kind to them than it has been to previous generations.
Not helping matters are the tangible effects of social media and constant internet exposure, as well as increased pressure to perform well in higher education.
As teens grow older, they approach the onset of most of the common mental health issues that affect us today.
Parents and teens alike need to be better equipped with the knowledge and resources needed to identify and combat these illnesses, provide long-term support to help teens develop healthy expectations for themselves and live fulfilling lives, and gain a better understanding of the myriad of short-term and long-term treatment options available for teens and adults.
Let’s take a look at four of the most common mental disorders in teens, and how they can develop.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorders affect people more than any other mental disorders in teens. Research has shown that up to a quarter of children between the ages of 13 and 18 are struggling with an anxiety disorder diagnosis, and studies taken from over two dozen nations show that about 18 percent of the world’s population may suffer from anxiety, compared to less than ten percent for mood disorders, and about 6 percent for substance use.
Among anxiety disorders, the most common one is a generalized anxiety disorder. This is a condition characterized by a heightened sense of dread, worry, and insecurity. It often overlaps with other anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and is a common codependent illness in cases of substance use.
The defining difference between a nervous teenager and a teenager with generalized anxiety is the degree to which their worries and fears affect them in their daily lives, and play a role in their relationships, performance at school, self-esteem, and interests. We’ve all had rough spots growing up, but a teen with generalized anxiety will experience constant fear of making the wrong choices, difficulty concentrating, maybe chronically restless, and will constantly be thinking of the worst-case scenario.
Generalized anxiety disorder can also include physical symptoms. Teens with generalized anxiety may experience panic attacks, hyperventilation, may break out into sweats, may feel generally more fatigued (as their adrenal glands are consistently shot), and may have more frequent bouts of nausea and/or digestive problems.
Risk factors for generalized anxiety are largely genetic. If anxiety is a long-running issue in the family, your chances of developing anxiety symptoms are higher. Because it is a long-term condition, generalized anxiety is usually modulated through long-term treatment, often through the concurrent use of talk therapy and patient-specific medication. Medication may not always be necessary, and there are several different types of drugs used in the treatment of anxiety, from beta-blockers and antidepressants to anti-convulsant and muscle relaxant drugs.
Major Depressive Disorder
Among mood disorders, the most common and recognizable one is major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression.
Most people are aware of what depression is and what it might look like, although they might not be aware of how common it can be, or the fact that you can be depressed for a period of time, rather than facing a life-long diagnosis.
About 15.7 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 have had a major depressive episode, alongside about 15.2 percent of adults aged 18 to 25. Only about two-thirds of people affected by major depressive disorder receive any treatment.
Like many anxiety disorders, depressive disorders (or mood disorders) are hereditary. There are many risk factors involved in exacerbating symptoms, or triggering the onset of depression, from a sudden loss to chronic stress at home, all the way to factors some people might not consider very often, such as lack of sleep and nutrition.
While antidepressants often play a role in treatment, they are very rarely the answer to depression on their own. About 6 percent of cases, among both teens and adults, were prescribed medication only. Talk therapy is an important modality for depression as well, particularly cognitive behavior therapy.
Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder
Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects an estimated 9.4 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 17. It’s one of the more poorly understood mental health issues, with allegations that it’s overdiagnosed and overmedicated.
Part of the concern for this issue arose from the fact that diagnosis rates exploded after the turn of the century, with a 42 percent rise in prevalence between 2003 and 2011.
While it’s likely irresponsible to claim that ADHD is overdiagnosed, it isn’t wrong to say that there is a lack of clarity around the condition. The guidelines for diagnosing ADHD as per the DSM 5 are not always rigorously applied, some studies found.
Yet there is also some evidence to consider that the condition remains underdiagnosed instead, especially among adults. ADHD is a huge drain on productivity and a major cause of individual impairment.
ADHD is what we call a behavioral disorder, and is the most common type. Diagnosis rates have exploded in large part due to a much better understanding of what this condition is, alongside improvements in treatment plans.
While medication is often used to combat ADHD – in the form of amphetamines and methylphenidates – behavioral therapy and talk therapy play important roles as well. Stimulants are shown to have a different effect on brains with ADHD versus non-ADHD brains, to the point where consistent medication leads to lower rates of illicit substance use, as well as improved symptoms. Contrast this to the recreational use of ADHD drugs, which is a common issue among teens.
Substance Use Disorder
Drug use has grown in prevalence since the onset of the pandemic, and the use of both marijuana and e-cigarettes has been growing for the past few years. While teens may not be addicted at the same rates as adults, addiction is a greater risk for teens because of the impact it can have on physical and mental development.
Addiction is a young person’s growing brain that can have lasting effects on their ability to gauge risk, permanently affect their cognitive abilities, and will drastically increase the risk of long-term substance use problems.
Early treatment is the best course of action for teens struggling with addiction. Concurrent treatment for issues like depression and anxiety may also be necessary, as about a third of people with mental disorders and a half of people with severe mental disorders also experience substance abuse.
Recognizing the signs and getting help are important first steps, but long-term support is critical. Parents, family, and friends all play a role in helping a teen manage their symptoms, continue to seek help, and have access to the resources needed to get better.