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How Mental Health Challenges Can Manifest in Youth

*If your child does or says anything that indicates they have a desire to hurt themselves or others, take them seriously. If you feel your child is in danger, call 911, a local mental health crisis hotline or one of the following national crisis resources for immediate assistance:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

  • Crisis Text Line: Text “MHFA” to 741-741

Mental health challenges among youth have increased rapidly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that 44% of high schoolers reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless during the past year.

Because many symptoms of mental health challenges can seem similar to aspects of typical adolescent development, it can be difficult to tell whether a young person is simply going through natural changes or developing a mental health challenge. For example, social withdrawal is a symptom of many mental health challenges. And it’s common for a young person to withdraw from family and spend more time with friends. However, if the youth is withdrawing from everyone, friends and family alike, there may be cause for concern. 

Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) teaches us that it is important to not only look for changes in a young person’s behavior, but also to consider how much these changes are impacting their life. A young person who is struggling with school, avoiding social engagements or no longer enjoying the things they used to enjoy, could possibly be struggling and in need of help.

To help you #BeTheDifference in a young person’s life, here are a few common youth-related mental health and substance use challenges and some of the signs of them: 

Major Depressive Disorder: This mood disorder is the most severe form of depression. When people think of depression, they typically imagine someone who appears sad and withdrawn. However, there are also other signs that may indicate they are living with Major Depressive Disorder. Signs and symptoms to look for include: 

  • •An unusually sad mood that persists longer than normal.
  • •Difficulty concentrating or making decisions and avoiding discussion of future events regarding 
    education or work opportunities. 
  • •Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much.
  • •Loss of interest in food or eating too much.
  • •Struggling to work effectively in the morning but doing better in late afternoon classes at school.

Anxiety disorders: These are among the most common mental health challenges that occur in children and adolescents: one in four youth are affected by anxiety disorders in their lifetime. While everyone experiences anxiety at some time, as it is a natural response to help avoid dangerous situations, there are various signs that may indicate a young person is living with an anxiety disorder, like: 

  • •Becoming tearful in the morning and expressing not wanting to go to school.
  • •Being extremely quiet and fearful of asking questions.
  • •Complaining of sudden, unexpected physical illness, like a stomach- or headache.
  • •Avoiding meeting new people or socializing in groups.
  • •Using alcohol or drugs at parties to make it easier to talk to people.
  • •Avoiding speaking up out of fear of embarrassment.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: In children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), their hyperactivity, inattention, impulsivity or a combination are noticeably greater than expected for their age. Disruptive behaviors are frequently found in children and youth who have ADHD, which affects about 11% of school-age children, according to YMHFA. Youth with ADHD may exhibit signs like: 

•Difficulty paying attention to details and easily distracted.
  • •Appearing not to listen when spoken to or follow through on given tasks.
  • •Feeling restless or trying to do too many things at once.
  • •Having difficulty sticking with treatment. 

Eating disorders: Approximately 3% of adolescents in the United States have eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Girls are more than 2½ times as likely to have an eating disorder than their male counterparts. It’s also important to note that a young person with an eating disorder can be underweight, overweight or fall within a healthy weight range. The following signs may indicate a youth is living with an eating disorder: 

  • •Avoiding eating family meals by claiming to have already eaten with friends, to have eaten too much earlier in the day or to not be hungry.

  • •Obsessively counting calories or examining food labels for nutritional information.

  • •Eating lunch away from school grounds to avoid eating in front of peers.

  • •Avoiding socializing in places where food is a focus, like cafes or restaurants. 

  • •Talking about fat, focusing on specific body parts, pinching perceived areas of fat on the body and frequently checking their reflection. 

While it can be painful to accept that the youth in our lives may be experiencing mental health challenges or crises, it’s important – perhaps even lifesaving — to get educated on the signs and symptoms to look for as well as how to start a conversation about mental wellbeing. Check out the following resources to get started and #BeTheDifference for the youth in your community. 

*If you feel your child is in danger, call 911, a local mental health crisis hotline or one of the following national crisis resources for immediate assistance:

  • •National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • •Crisis Text Line: Text “MHFA” to 741-741

References 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, March 31). New CDC data illuminate youth mental health threats during the COVID-19 pandemic. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0331-youth-mental-health-covid-19.html. 

Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting children and youth. National Council for Behavioral Health.

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