Although there is more and more awareness around the mental health needs of teens, adolescents still lack support to prevent mental illness in the first place.
Experts know that of those adolescents who will develop a mental illness, half of them have their onset at age 14 and 75% of them by the age of 24. Half of adolescents meet the criteria for a mental disorder at some point. Yet, alarmingly, 79% of teens with mental health issues do not get the treatment or mental health support they need.
To be clear, the fact that a teen isn’t getting the help they need isn’t anyone’s fault per se. There are a number of barriers that stand in the way when a teen needs mental health support. Some of these barriers include:
Despite the growing awareness around teen depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness, there remains a stigma and judgment associated with “having something wrong with you”. This has become one of the largest barriers for teens in accessing mental health treatment.
Lack of Education / Awareness
Frequently adolescents are not aware that they even need treatment and believe that feeling sad or anxious is part of everyday life. It’s common that only when symptoms become debilitating, that’s when a teen might seek for help. But even in those cases, adolescents might talk to parents or friends versus a mental health professional who might be able to provide help.
Lack of Health Insurance
In 2012, almost 9 percent of adolescents lacked insurance. Yet, even with coverage, the amount of mental health services they can receive is often limited. On the whole, however, research indicates that teens who tend to need mental health services and don’t get them are those that are homeless, those that are served by state child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and LGBT teens.
Resistance to Taking Medication
Some teens may want mental health support but they resist taking any sort of psychotropic medication. Some teens may resist treatment in general. They don’t want to experience the effects of those medications on their mood. perception, or cognitive abilities. Some teens may start out with receiving treatment for their mental health concern but then stop because of the way that the medication was affecting them.
Even when a family has insurance that covers mental health costs, there may continue to be fees to pay for, including co-pay and deductibles. And if a teen requires residential treatment or even hospitalization, finances can sometimes stand in the way of treatment.
According to the Stanford Medical School, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, the United States lacks an all-inclusive, reliable system that can tend to the unique developmental and cultural needs of teens. By having a comprehensive system, preventative measures can be taken to assist teens early on before symptoms become debilitating. Teens need the ability to access early health and mental health services in a safe environment.
Safety When Providing Mental Health Support Services
Creating a safe environment is important for teens because of the life stage they are in. Safety for them may mean an environment that respects their preferences (such as the one mentioned above about medication) and any fears they might have. Safety also means giving teens the opportunity to develop relationships with mental health providers on their own terms. This may mean giving teens a chance to get to know a mental health provider before forcing them to sit down in therapy or in a psychiatric setting.
This might happen, for instance, by having more mental health professionals available in the school setting. Or having mental health professionals introduce themselves on school campuses. Making mental health professionals more available at schools may help teens feel more comfortable in approaching them. By creating safety and by keeping in mind the unique needs of teens, a more reliable system can be developed which better detects emerging mental health disorders in teens.
One way to help create a more comprehensive system is to begin to have mental health screenings at school campuses. In fact, screenings for mental illness has been a recommendation by federal health officials for over a decade. However, it is still not mandatory. Despite the fact that there are schools that do screen for mental health concerns, there is no consistency that takes place among all schools, what age they screen for, and what type of illness they screen.
Fortunately, there are some schools throughout Baltimore and Chicago that do extensive screening of their students as early as in kindergarten. Students fill out short questionnaires, such as in Minnesota where students answer anonymous surveys about drug use and depression. However, a nation-wide mental health system that addresses the psychological needs of teens (depression, anxiety, suicide, witnessing violence, addiction, bipolar, and more) is greatly needed.
Education for Families Can Be Preventative
In fact, the lack of mental health early preventative services is creating consequences in American families. Despite the fact that a high number of mental health issues exist among teens, there is not yet a system that can respond quickly to the needs of adolescents, and catch problems before they interfere with a teen’s ability to go to school or work. However, one way to help create a better mental health system for teens is to provide education. When teens and their families understand not only certain illnesses, how to prevent them, tips to treat certain illnesses at home, medication, and an illness’ prevalence, they are more likely to seek help. Here are some immediate tips parents can benefit from:
- Look at The National Alliance for Mental Illness website for information on mental illness.
- Don’t be ashamed of mental illness. Instead, focus on getting the help your teen needs.
- Encourage your teen to get enough sleep. Sleep is an essential component to mental health. Sleep deprivation is associated with mood disorders, so be sure to get at least eight hours of sleep a night.
- Encourage your teen to exercise for 20-30 minutes, four to five times a week.
- Let your teen know that you want them to stay away from drugs and alcohol, which can help prevent depressive and manic episodes.
Severe Mental Illness
Early prevention and mental health support is crucial for severe mental illness. Severe mental illnesses are those that are considered to be more challenging and significantly impair a teen’s ability to function in their day to day life. These are illnesses such as schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder, and severe depression. As mentioned above, in most cases families wait until a teen’s symptoms become debilitating. However, with severe mental illness, an adolescent doesn’t have to go through this kind of experience. Instead, with early prevention, a crisis can often be avoided.
Have Your Teen Assessed
If you are a parent or caregiver, one way to help your teen stay mentally healthy is to have your teen assessed by a mental health professional. Just as you might take your teen for a check up with a doctor, look for a mental health provider that specializes in teen mental health. The advantage to this is that you can be clear about whether your teen is struggling with a mental illness. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist can provide you with a diagnosis, treatment plan, and the right treatment. On the other hand, you might find that your teen is perfectly healthy. Either way, with an assessment, you and your family won’t be left in the dark.
Know of another way to help teens stay mentally healthy? Share it in the comments below. Let’s start the mental health conversation and help teens receive the treatment they need.