When a teen has a devastating panic attack or is rushed to the emergency room after a suicide attempt, the family is forced to recognize what’s going on and take action. But it’s not always possible to head off such an event. In some cases, a teen mental health crisis is the first time that parents learn what’s really going on with their child, particularly when teens hide their emotions due to shame or fear of their family’s reaction.
Mental health stigma not only affects whether a teen feels comfortable sharing their struggles, it can also get in the way of a teen receiving care even when parents know something is wrong. They may not seek care right away, because they’re afraid their family or their child will be seen differently. Parents who do vocalize concerns to friends or relatives may be discouraged from seeking help and assured that this is typical teen behavior. And because they want to be reassured, they let themselves be convinced that everything’s okay.
But diagnosing and treating teen mental health issues early increases the success of treatment, decreases the frequency and severity of future episodes, and reduces the trauma surrounding the episode. For these reasons and more, it is essential to address teen mental health issues as soon as possible, before a crisis or breakdown can occur.
What Is Considered a Breakdown?
The term “breakdown” is not a medical diagnosis. Also commonly referred to as a “nervous breakdown” or a “mental breakdown,” the term indicates a severe mental event in which a teen can no longer function or perform day-to-day activities. The mental health episode may be brought on by significant stressors, such as trauma or loss, or excessive pressure within the school, family, or work environment. Such an episode is often an indication of an underlying teen mental health condition.
Symptoms of a serious mental health episode vary from person to person and from situation to situation. Some symptoms develop over a long period; others appear very quickly. Some of these symptoms, which should always be taken seriously, include:
- Inability to function in day-to-day activities
- Sleeping excessively or not being able to sleep at all
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or speaking coherently
- Auditory or visual hallucinations, including ringing sounds or seeing lights
- Anxiety that interferes with basic functioning
- Delusions, including feeling indestructible or beyond human
- Psychosis, or complete detachment from reality
- Self-harm, suicidality, or suicide attempt.
If a teen experiences these symptoms, it is important for parents or caregivers to seek immediate medical care to prevent more severe consequences, including loss of life.
The Importance of Early Intervention in Teen Mental Health
During the adolescent years, the brain undergoes extensive changes, making teens more vulnerable to mental illness. Hence, if severe symptoms are allowed to develop, the episode will have a greater impact on long-term social, behavioral, emotional, and intellectual development. In addition, a severe mental health episode often requires hospitalization, increasing the level of trauma surrounding the episode.
More treatment options are available in the early stages of a teen mental health crisis, and early intervention can decrease the number and severity of future mental health episodes. Moreover, because half of all mental health disorders start by age 14, teens are in a high risk group, and early intervention can make all the difference in terms of their future. Education, awareness, and early intervention in a mental health episode can provide a higher quality of life for your teen now and into the future.
Warning Signs of a Teen Mental Health Crisis
Many warning signs can easily be overlooked by parents and caregivers, teachers, and other adults responsible for children or adolescents. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Excessive worrying, fear, or anxiety
- Severe changes in sleep patterns
- Frequent nightmares or night terrors
- Severe changes in appetite
- Feeling “flat,” displaying less interest or emotions than usual
- Extreme mood changes, including periods of euphoria or exaggerated silliness
- Hyperactivity or inability to focus
- Periods of increased recklessness, clumsiness, or decreased ability to concentrate
- Extreme or uncharacteristic irritability or anger
- Avoiding friends, family, or social activities
- Having low energy or minor unexplained health problems like headaches, sore throat, aches, or gastrointestinal problems
- Sudden changes in behavior or use of substances
- Excessive concern about weight or appearance
- Significant changes in school performance, interests, hobbies, or friends.
While many of these symptoms can seem like typical behaviors in teens, the key is noticing when they last more than a few weeks or months, especially if the symptoms worsen with time. For parents, the most important thing is to remember to follow your gut. When parents can avoid getting caught up in mental health stigma or denial and seek treatment early for their teen, it can be life changing or even life saving for their children.
Seeking Appropriate Treatment for Teen Mental Health
In summary, seeking treatment before a breakdown or serious mental health episode increases the treatment options for teens, as well as the success of treatment. Early intervention can lessen the quantity and severity of future mental health episodes and support a teen’s brain function and development at this crucial time in their lives.
Int J Ment Health Syst. 2020; 14: 23.
PNAS. 2020 Feb;117(6):3248–3253.