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Is Your Child or Teenager at Risk for a Mental Health Crisis?

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Older teenage boy sitting in hallway

Mental health conditions among children, teens and young adults – specifically, depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and an alarming trend toward suicide – is a growing problem in this country. In fact, suicide is now recognized as the second leading cause of death among Americans between 10 and 24 – second only to vehicular and accidental death. This problem existed long before COVID, but now, with the pandemic, risk factors such as isolation and excessive screen time may be heightened and parents need to be especially watchful.

Why the Trend?

The reason behind this growing threat to our young people is a puzzle. And while, we have some of the pieces – many are still missing and it is clear that something must be done to stop this tragic loss of life.

Most mental health professionals agree that the exponential growth of technology over the last two decades may be at least one piece of the puzzle. The generation of children born after the start of the new millennium, have been literally steeped in technology – the internet, social media and the pervasive ability to communicate anytime, anywhere and with anyone through their smart phones. This generation – these “digital natives” – have never known a world without these conveniences and, by the time they reach adolescence, can’t conceive of a life without them.

Add Social Media to the Mix

Particularly vulnerable to the opinions of their peers and the need to “fit in,” children and teens flock to their screens to share, post and comment on the lives of others – and look for positive input regarding their own experiences. Sadly, social media platforms also offer the opportunity for online bullying and shaming – often anonymously and without consequences. When cyberbullying continues unchecked, it can leave the subject of the abuse feeling powerless and diminished, additional risk factors for mental health problems.

This age of high-tech communication, while beneficial in many ways, also has consequences – particularly for the young and impressionable who are not yet able to set limits for themselves. Unable to voluntarily step away from the constant online chatter, many suffer from a chronic lack of sleep and, ironically, begin to feel socially isolated – spending more time texting and posting than in actual face-to-face interactions with family and friends. Given that adequate sleep and strong, meaningful social connections are two of the cornerstones of emotional wellness, too little of either may lay the foundation for mental health disorders.

Other Factors to Consider

For better or worse, young people today are far more aware of and well-versed in the language of mental health than were previous generations. As a result, there is less stigma surrounding terms such as depression, anxiety and even suicide. In vulnerable children and teens, the lack of a strong, mental health foundation and weakened self-esteem can lead to behaviors such as substance abuse and the consideration of suicide as a way to escape their emotional pain.

So, while we suspect that technology and social media may play a part in the current mental health crisis among our young people, there is no definitive proof. Mental health disorders often occur outside of these influences, which underlines the need for heightened awareness among parents and caregivers. Watching for the signs and symptoms of mental distress in their children and teens and seeking professional help early in the process are vitally important.

Recognizing the Signs

Older children and teens are naturally prone to push boundaries, question parental rules and generally push back against authority in their journey to become independent adults. It is a time-honored process. However, it is important to know what is NOT normal and to recognize the behaviors that could signal a potentially serious mental health problem. These include:

  • Prolonged self-isolation and withdrawal from family and friends
  • Disinterest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Irritability, secretiveness and/or excessive tiredness
  • Changes in sleep patterns and appetite
  • Declining grades or involvement in school
  • Mood instability that can range from sadness and apathy to aggression

Because mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders often go hand-in-hand, it is also important to watch for the physical signs of drug or alcohol abuse, which may include:

  • Bloodshot eyes and/or widely dilated pupils
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Shakes, tremors and/or facial flushing
  • Poor hygiene
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Bruises or other unexplained injuries

If your child or teen is displaying any of these personality or physical changes, don’t ignore it or chalk it up to a phase. Have a private conversation with your child and ask them in a direct, non-confrontational way if they are feeling depressed, anxious or even suicidal. Be persistent - asking the question will not make the situation worse – more likely, it will provide your child with the opportunity to open up and talk about their feelings.

If you suspect your child is struggling with mental health issues, even if they don’t acknowledge it, you may want to consider having them evaluated by a pediatric behavioral health professional.