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The Impact of Mental Health Challenges on Teens

Being a teen comes with exciting milestones that double as challenges – like becoming independent, navigating high school and forming new relationships. For all the highs that come with getting a driver’s license or acing that difficult test, there are lows that come with growing up in a rapidly changing world being shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, social media and distance learning.

Teens’ brains are growing and developing, and the ways they process their experiences and spend their time are crucial to their development. Each great experience and every embarrassing moment can impact their mental health.

Sometimes a mood is about more than just being lonely or angry or frustrated.

Mental health challenges are different than situational sadness or fatigue. They’re more severe and longer-lasting, and they can have a large impact on daily life. Some common mental health challenges are anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use, and experiencing trauma. They can affect a teen’s usual way of thinking, feeling or acting, and interfere with daily life.

Adding to the urgency: Mental health challenges among teens are not uncommon. Up to 75% of mental health challenges emerge during adolescence, and according to the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum, one in five teens has had a serious mental health disorder at some point in their life.

Not every mental health challenge will be diagnosed as a mental disorder, but every challenge should be taken seriously.

A mental health challenge left unchecked can become a more serious problem that also impacts physical health — think of how substance use, and changes in sleep patterns and eating habits affect the body as well as the mind. Signs of fatigue, withdrawing socially or changes in mood may point to an emerging mental health challenge like a depressive or substance use disorder.

As teens mature, they begin spending more time with their friends, gain a sense of identity and purpose, and become more independent. All of these experiences are crucial for their development, and a mental health challenge can disrupt or complicate that development. Depending on the severity of the mental health challenge, the effects can last long into adulthood if left unaddressed.

How do we address teens’ mental health?

Teens need tools to talk about what’s going on with them, and they need tools for when their friends reach out to them. Research shows that teens are more likely to talk to their friends than an adult about troubles they’re facing.

That’s why it’s important to talk to teens about the challenges they may deal with as they grow up and navigate young adulthood. They need to know it’s OK to sometimes feel sad, angry, alone, and frustrated. But persistent problems may be pointing to something else, and it is crucial to be able to recognize early warning signs so teens can get appropriate help in a timely manner. teen Mental Health First Aid teaches high school students in grades 10-12 how to identify, understand and respond to signs of a mental health problem or crisis among their friends — and how to bring in a trusted adult when it’s appropriate and necessary. With proper care and treatment, many teens with mental health or substance use challenges can recover. The first step is getting help.

Learn more about teen Mental Health First Aid by watching this video and checking out our blog. Your school or youth-serving organization can also apply to bring this training to your community.

teen Mental Health First Aid is run by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing and supported by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.


Resource Guide:

  • Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). teen Mental Health First Aid USA: A manual for young people in 10th-12th grade helping their friends. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,

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