Mental illness & teenagers: Starting the conversation

Mental health problems are not uncommon among teenagers. However, despite 20% of youth experiencing a diagnosable mental illness, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that only half of those suffering ever seek treatment.

There are many reasons why a young person may not seek medical help for mental illness – shame being a large factor. It is safe to assume, though, that someone with a broken bone wouldn’t get embarrassed to get medical help. I mean, can you think of the last time a student broke their leg, and the gym teacher said, “You’re fine. Just ignore it and run!” I can’t. Why? Well, this all comes down to one detrimental factor: mental illness is still very stigmatized.

Teenagers with mental health problems are “challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness," according to research published in the journal World Psychiatry. As a community, it is essential that we have conversations about mental illness with teenagers.

It is normal to experience feelings of sadness or anger during difficult times. However, if you find that your child or loved one is responding abnormally to everyday situations or exhibiting a drastic change in personality, there may be a serious underlying problem. Common mental health problems among teenagers include generalized anxiety disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), major depressive disorder, and eating disorders.

Starting the conversation with your child or loved one may be the hardest, but most important step. Sit down with your teenager in a private space. Share why you are concerned, and approach the conversation compassionately, avoiding judgmental, invalidating, or dismissive language (such as “just try harder” or “you have nothing to be sad about”).

Talking about their mental health can be hard for teenagers, as these feelings are so personal. Ask your child or loved one, “What can I do to best help you?” Suggest researching different forms of treatment together, such as talk-therapy, and assure them that there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. Simply put: if your body is ill, you go to the doctor. If your brain is ill, you go to the doctor. 

Furthermore, if your child or loved one is inflicting harm on themselves or others (or at risk of doing so), or if you believe their life may be threatened by suicidal ideation, seek medical help immediately, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Being knowledgeable about mental illness, and showing compassion when speaking about the topic, will encourage our youth to ask the adults in their life for help. So many teenagers struggle with these issues by themselves, and it doesn’t have to be that way. We can combat the stigma just by changing the way we talk about mental illness to the young people in our lives. Nobody should have to suffer alone.

Malcolm X once said, “When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘We’, even illness becomes wellness.” The youth in our community deserve mental wellness. Let’s start the conversation.

Chloe Roberts

19-year-old Bay High School alumni and English major at Cleveland State University.

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Volume 11, Issue 18, Posted 9:09 AM, 09.17.2019