Think back to your teenage years. While you likely have a ton of good memories, you may also recall feelings of sheer frustration and sadness. And chances are your teen is going through the same thing right now. Finding ways to support them can feel hopeless, but in the midst of a teen mental health crisis, they need you now more than ever.
What's propelling the teen mental health crisis? According to Caroline Fenkel, LCSW, an adolescent mental health expert and a chief clinical officer at Charlie Health, the teen mental health crisis can't be attributed to one thing but to many causes that directly affect adolescents. "Subject matter experts continuously theorize root causes ranging from COVID-19's effect on emotional well-being, the rise of social media and the pitfalls of TikTok, increased rates of loneliness and isolation, and unprecedented instances of gun and sexual violence," says Fenkel.
Even if you didn't have an easy childhood, teens today are grappling with unprecedented situations like navigating social media to things that are out of their (and our) control, including a global pandemic and a climate crisis. As if being a teen wasn't hard enough, these issues are causing even more stress on the teen population — and on parents. In all fairness to parents, it's difficult to support someone through something you don't understand or feel powerless about.
Building a trusting relationship and knowing what to look for and how to help is the best way you can support your teen.
Signs That Your Teen Needs Help
The signs to watch for aren't always easy to spot. However, Fenkel says parents should look out for the following, acknowledging that mental illness can present itself in several ways among different individuals:
- Avoiding friends, family, or social activities. If your child starts to avoid their friends or activities that used to bring them joy, they may be struggling with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or another mental health issue.
- Unexpected changes in moods. It's normal for teens to experience mood swings as hormonal changes occur. However, it's important to monitor if these mood swings increase and begin to affect a teen's ability to continue with everyday activities.
- Changes in sleep and eating habits. Sudden insomnia, increased napping throughout the day, and wanting to stay in bed all day could all be signs of a more significant problem. Similarly, changes in eating habits can be a sign that someone is struggling with their mental health.
- Trouble with everyday tasks. For people who are suffering from a mental illness like anxiety or depression, even the most routine tasks can seem overwhelming. If your teen has abandoned habits that used to help them feel their best, including keeping up with personal hygiene or physical activity, they might need immediate mental health attention.
- Self-harm. This can be hard to spot as teens can hide physical signs under their clothing, but they include: scars; frequent cuts, burns, bruises, scratches, or other physical injuries; making excuses for new injuries; wearing long pants and long sleeves even in hot weather; signs of blood on towels or clothes, or unexpectedly doing their own laundry; taking out their own trash; razor seeking; withdrawing from friends, family, or social activities.
How To Support Your Teen's Mental Health
On a preventative level, providing an environment where teens feel comfortable coming to you for help is the ideal scenario. However, any parent of a teen can tell you how difficult communicating with a teen can be, especially when they are going through something that they might not feel comfortable approaching you with.
In other words, the foundation of communication ideally should be happening at a much younger age, setting the stage for an open relationship where even tricky things can be discussed or handled as a family, avoiding letting matters evolve into potentially dangerous situations. Some ways to achieve this include:
- Setting healthy boundaries
- Spending quality time together
- Practicing active listening
- Keeping an open mind
- Providing support free of judgment
- Creating a crisis plan that includes: coping strategies and resources
- Becoming certified for mental crisis scenarios
Additional resources for teen mental health:
- Lisa Damour's The Emotional Lives of Teenagers with free discussion guides for parents of teens (also the Ask Lisa podcast is free and amazing)
- NAMI: How to Talk to Your Child About Their Mental Health
- Y-CARE: How to Help Someone in Crisis (The Trevor Project)
- JED's Mental Health Resource Center provides essential information about common emotional health issues. It shows teens and young adults how they can support one another, overcome challenges, and successfully transition to adulthood.
- SAMHSA's National Helpline: SAMHSA's National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988 is now the three-digit dialing code that routes callers to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (or 988 Lifeline). On July 16, 2022, the Lifeline transitioned away from the National Suicide Prevention Line reached through a 10-digit number to the three-digit 988 Lifeline. It is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and administered by Vibrant Emotional Health (Vibrant).
If you believe your teen is in the midst of a mental health crisis that is beyond your capacity or is endangering their lives, get immediate professional or emergency help.