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Symptoms and Signs of Mental Illness in Children and Teens

Parents often sense that something’s not right with their child, but they can’t tell if it’s a phase or a serious issue that requires treatment. Learning the signs of mental illness in children and teens can help families identify and address problems as quickly as possible.  

With an increasing number of adolescents struggling with their mental health, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of the symptoms and signs of mental illness in teenagers. Recognizing a problem before it escalates is key for helping teens get the care they need and avoid a mental health crisis. And the earlier a teen receives treatment, the more successful the outcomes.

What Is Impacting Adolescent Mental Health Today?

Why are teens suffering in such high numbers right now? Mental health experts believe that numerous factors are contributing to today’s youth mental health crisis. The effects of social media have led to increased depression in teens, as a result of social comparison, cyberbullying, and poor body image. Moreover, spending more time online means teens spend less time engaging in meaningful real-life connections.

In addition, national and international events and circumstances weigh heavily on adolescents. They are inheriting a world filled with political strife, environmental concerns, economic uncertainties, and pressing social issues, such as racism and global health threats. These problems alone might not catalyze signs of mental illness in children and teens. However, they can certainly make existing emotional struggles and vulnerabilities worse.

How Many Teens Have a Mental Health Issue?

Teen mental health statistics reflect the devastating issues impacting youth. CDC research released in 2022 shows that more than 4 in 10 teens report feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.” And 1 in 5 say they have contemplated suicide. About 15 percent of US teens suffer from major depression, and 40 percent have symptoms of anxiety.

As a result, school professionals are facing a growing demand for mental health services. A survey of public schools found that 76 percent of faculty and staff members have expressed concerns about students’ depression, anxiety, and trauma since the start of the pandemic. And only about half of schools are able to provide adequate mental health services to all students in need.

How Does Mental Health Affect Teenagers?

What are the effects of teen mental illness on adolescents’ everyday lives? In short, adolescent mental health conditions affect everything about a teenager’s life. Teenage mental health symptoms interfere with mood, daily functioning, relationships with family and peers, academic performance, and career goals. They can also negatively impact physical health and delay developmental milestones for this stage of life.

Furthermore, if they remain untreated, these issues continue into young adulthood and beyond. One study found that children and teenagers with a mental illness were six times more likely to have health, legal, financial, and social problems as adults.


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Common Mental Health Problems in Teens

Below are some of the most common teenage mental health problems. These include mental health and co-occurring diagnoses recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Co-occurring disorders are problems and behaviors that typically arise as the result of an underlying mental illness.

Major Depression

Also known as clinical depression or major depressive disorder, major depression is marked by pervasive symptoms, lasting for at least two weeks and significantly affecting daily functioning. Some teens experience other forms of depression, such as seasonal depression and chronic depression.

Anxiety Disorders

Generalized anxiety disorder manifests as constant worrying, irrational fears, and self-judgment, which can be paralyzing for teens. Also common in teens, social anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder that catalyzes intense fear and distress in connection with social situations, meeting new people, or being the center of attention. Phobias are another form of anxiety disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a response to acute or chronic trauma in which teens experience symptoms that interfere with daily functioning, such as flashbacks, panic attacks, hyperarousal, and difficulty focusing.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar I is characterized by manic periods interspersed with either depression or relative stability. Bipolar II is marked by cycles of depression and hypomania—a milder set of manic symptoms.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Teens with OCD are overwhelmed by unwanted and disturbing thoughts, images, or urges—known as obsessions. These obsessions create extreme anxiety, which is why OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder.

Behavioral Addictions

A behavioral addiction, or process addiction, is a compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior (such as gaming, gambling, or shopping) even though it creates significant negative consequences.


Self-harm refers to injuring or hurting yourself on purpose. Officially known as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), self-harm is a symptom of extreme emotional distress. Hence, self-harm is one of the signs of mental illness in children and teenagers

Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder refers to an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Adolescents may begin using substances as a way to avoid the emotional pain of teenage mental illness symptoms. They then develop a physical and/or mental addiction to the substance.

Causes of Mental Illness in Youth

There is usually no single cause of an adolescent mental health condition. Neurobiology, genetics, temperament, childhood experiences, and other life events all play a part. However, there are several risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of developing teenage mental illness symptoms. These include:

  • Relational trauma—a disrupted relationship with parents or caregivers early in life
  • Other forms of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as abuse, neglect, the death of a parent, or having a parent with a mental health or substance use disorder
  • Living in an unsafe environment or neighborhood
  • Bullying or rejection by peers
  • Sexual assault
  • Discrimination or exclusion due to gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity
  • Having a physical or intellectual disability or a chronic illness.

When any of these conditions are present, the possibility of experiencing one of the common mental disorders in teens increases exponentially.

How Do I Know If My Teenager Has a Mental Illness?

Even for parents, who know their children best, it’s not always easy to distinguish the difference between normal adolescent angst and signs of mental illness in a teenager. Warning signs in youth can look like typical rebellious or risk-taking behavior. The best approach for how to spot mental illness in a child is by observing their behavior and maintaining ongoing communication and connection. Some signs and symptoms develop over a long period, while others appear very quickly. Doing a regular mental health temperature check can help parents recognize teenage mental illness symptoms early on.

Signs of Mental Illness in Children and Teens

Here are some of the early signs of mental illness that parents may be able to observe in teenagers:

  • Sleeping too much or not enough, always tired
  • Anger, aggression, withdrawal, or other behavior changes
  • Changes in appetite, dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Crying all the time
  • Sudden drop in academic performance
  • Behavioral addictions, such as gaming disorder or social media addiction
  • Risky behavior, including substance abuse as an unhealthy coping mechanism for emotional distress

Teenage Mental Illness Symptoms

Parents can also watch for indications of the internal symptoms typical of common mental health disorders in teens:

  • Feelings of numbness and emptiness
  • Suicidal thoughts and plans
  • Sense of worthlessness and guilt
  • Extremely low self-esteem
  • Persistent sadness and hopelessness
  • Difficulty getting motivated or completing tasks
  • Unexplained physical symptoms, such as aches and pains, headaches, and stomach problems
  • Self-harming behaviors

Teenage Mental Breakdown Symptoms

In addition to the signs of mental illness in children and teens listed above, parents should also watch for symptoms of a potential mental health crisis that requires immediate medical attention. When a teen is having difficulty thinking, concentrating, or speaking coherently, it’s important to get help as quickly as possible. Other warning signs include auditory or visual hallucinations, such as ringing sounds or seeing lights. Teens in crisis may have delusions, including feeling indestructible or beyond human. Or they may experience dissociation—a sense of detachment from reality.

All of these signs of mental illness in teenagers should be taken extremely seriously. In addition, self-harm, suicidality, or a suicide attempt all indicate an immediate need for treatment. That may mean going to the emergency room or calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK.

Diagnosing Mental Illness in Children and Adolescents

When a parent detects teenage mental illness symptoms, the next step is accessing the support of a professional. A full evaluation with a physician or mental health expert is the best and most effective way of diagnosing mental illness in children and teens.

A mental health assessment can take place in an ER, a doctor’s office, an outpatient treatment center, or a therapist’s office. The provider will ask the parent and child questions about their behaviors, feelings, and past health history. They may take blood tests or do a physical examination to rule out any medical issues that could be catalyzing symptoms of mental illness. Following the examination, the provider will typically give a probable diagnosis and recommend options for care.

Why Treatment Might Be an Option

No parent wants their child to have an adolescent mental health condition. However, when a teen is given a mental health diagnosis, families are often relieved as well as worried. The relief comes from finally understanding what a child is going through and how to help them.

Following a diagnosis, families need to access teen mental health treatment  as quickly as possible. You can take the next step today by contacting our Admissions counselors. Our team is available 24/7 to assist families in finding the right level of care, optimizing insurance coverage, and streamlining the enrollment process. We are here to help your teen and your family get started on the path to healing.  

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