6 Facts Parents Should Know about Mental Illness in Teens

mother consoling her daughter

It’s normal for teenagers to be moody at times. But when are an adolescent’s mood swings a sign of something more—like mental illness?

Mental illness is more common in teens than you think. But many types of mental illness are treatable, and it’s just a matter of pinpointing the diagnosis.

Six Facts About Mental Illness

Here are 6 facts about mental illness in teens that parents should be aware of.

Physicians define “mental illness” differently than most of us do

Physicians look at specific criteria in order to determine if a person has a mental illness.

For a person to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, physicians generally look for depressed mood or a lack of interest in hobbies or recreational activities. However, in teens, these signs might show up as changes in their grades, a disinterest in friends, or out-of-character irritability. If at least one of those symptoms is present, additional criteria are assessed.

Additionally, five out of following seven symptoms are required for diagnosis:

  • changes in sleep
  • new onset of guilt
  • changes in energy level
  • changes in concentration or task completion
  • changes in appetite
  • changes in motivation
  • thoughts of suicide

If a person has experienced five of those symptoms nearly every day, for at least two weeks, he or she might be diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

The lesson: If your teen has occasional episodes of anger or stays out late sometimes, it’s probably not a reason to be worried.

On the other hand, if those feelings persist and there are other unusual symptoms, it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor.

There are a few common types of mental illness in teens

The most common mental illnesses in teens are:

  • Generalized anxiety—Excessive worry about everyday matters
  • Social phobias—Severe feelings of self-consciousness and insecurity in social settings
  • Depression—Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, and/or emptiness


More than 1 in 10 children between 12 and 17 years old experienced an episode of major depression in 2014. That means for at least 2 weeks, the teen:

  • Was depressed or lost interest or pleasure in other activities
  • Could not function normally, having trouble with things like sleep, energy, or concentration

Warning signs of mental illness in teens vary depending on the condition

For most kids, one of the telltale signs is going to be a decline in grades, but there are other warning signs, as well.

Changes in social habits including pulling away from school, friends, and activities that your child has enjoyed participating in in the past could be another warning sign. 

Generalized anxiety, social phobias, and depression also have their own unique symptoms.

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include:

  • Feeling restless, wound up, or on edge
  • Becoming fatigued easily
  • Struggling with concentration
  • Experiencing irritability
  • Feeling muscle tension
  • Having difficulty keeping worry levels under control
  • Struggling with sleep, such as difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, or not feeling well-rested

Social anxiety disorder symptoms include:

  • Feeling very anxious at the thought of being around others, and struggling to talk to other people
  • Experiencing extreme self-consciousness and fear of humiliation, embarrassment, rejection, or offending people
  • Worrying about being judged
  • Feeling anxious days or even weeks ahead of a social event
  • Avoiding places where other people will be
  • Struggling to make and keep friends
  • Blushing, sweating, or trembling around others
  • Experiencing nausea around other people

And signs of depression include:

  • Feeling persistently sad, anxious, or empty
  • Experiencing hopelessness or pessimism
  • Struggling with irritability
  • Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
  • Losing interest in hobbies or activities that used to be enjoyable
  • Struggling with fatigue or lack of energy
  • Moving and/or talking more slowly than usual
  • Feeling restless
  • Struggling with concentration, memory, and/or decision-making
  • Experiencing unexplained changes in appetite or weight
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide
  • Unexplained aches or pains that don’t go away when treated

While at least some of these symptoms generally have to be present for several weeks or months before an accurate diagnosis can be made, sometimes, even just 2 weeks’ worth of symptoms is enough to consider a diagnosis.

A teen’s primary care doctor can make the diagnosis

You should see your child’s pediatrician or family physician first. Their familiarity with your child’s medical history can make it faster and easier to reach a diagnosis.

During an initial appointment to screen for mental illness, the doctor might ask:

  • What are the symptoms the teen is displaying?
  • What are the parents worried about?
  • Does the teen have any concerns?

If the doctor isn’t comfortable making a diagnosis on their own, they can usually recommend a psychologist or psychiatrist.

There are ways to manage mental illness in teens

There are a range of options for treating mental illness in teens, including:

  • Identifying stressors, such as not getting enough sleep, skipping meals, or generally lacking a day-to-day routine—and remedying them
  • Counseling, which is often paired with medications
  • Prescribing psychiatric medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are "commonly used, very safe, and highly effective for depression, anxiety, and social phobias," he says.

Mental illness in teens is more common than people think—but also very treatable

Mental illness is preventable. However, in most cases, parents don't bring the child in until after issues have been going on for months and months because they are in denial. Most parents feel that, "It can’t possibly be what’s happening to my child."

You should talk to your teen if you’re concerned.

If your teen seems stressed or if there's been a significant change in their behavior it's best to address it in conversation with them first. It may not necessarily mean a psychiatric diagnosis like depression or anxiety, but it could still be a sign that there is something going on in their life that is acting as some type of stressor. 

If you’re concerned that your teen might be struggling with a mental illness, schedule an appointment with a Penn primary care physician.

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