Health Agenda

Mental Health

What are the major mental health issues for teenagers?

The number of teenagers experiencing mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, is on the rise. Here are the warning signs and where to find help.

Picture this: there are 100 young people aged between 15 and 19 standing in front of you.

Now imagine 24 of those young people step forward.

This is the number of young Australians who are experiencing psychological distress, according to a report by Mission Australia and Black Dog Institute.

Of those 24 young people, there are more young females than males. In fact, in the six years between 2012 and 2018, females were twice as likely as males to experience mental health challenges.

And a higher percentage of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders than non-Indigenous people met the criteria for psychological distress (31.9% compared to 23.9%).

You may be asking, “But hasn’t it always been like this?”

No. The research is very clear. There has been a big increase over that six-year period in the number of young people experiencing psychological distress, from 18.7% in 2012 to 24.2% in 2018.

How is psychological distress measured in young people?

Each year Mission Australia conducts a large survey exploring the issues and concerns of young people aged between 15–19 years old.

In 2019, with a cohort of more than 25,000 young people, mental health was found to be the most important issue for the third year in a row.

The survey included a screening tool called the Kessler 6 (K6), which measures the levels of psychological distress experienced by young people. The K6 is particularly powerful at detecting depressive and anxiety disorders.

It asks young people to indicate how frequently in the past four weeks they have felt: nervous, hopeless, restless or fidgety, so depressed that nothing could cheer them up, that everything was an effort and worthless.

The mental health issues teens are struggling with

Mental health problems are a major issue facing adolescents, says psychologist Sabina Read. “Half of all mental health conditions begin by the age of 14 years, with one in seven young people aged 4–17 years experiencing a mental health condition in any given year,” she says.

The major mental health issues facing teenagers are:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is the most common mental health disorder, as it impacts 7.4% of all Australian children and adolescents. Teenagers with ADHD usually have difficulties with attention, hyperactivity and impulse control.

Sabina says the warning signs of ADHD are: finding it hard to concentrate, an inability to sit still, acting before you think, being frequently distracted and avoiding tasks that take lots of mental effort.

Depression

Depression is much more than feeling low or down. It’s a serious mental health condition that impacts people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Approximately one in 35 young Australians aged between 4–17 experiences a depressive disorder.

The symptoms of depression include: being withdrawn, changes in sleep patterns, decreased performance at school, taking drugs or drinking alcohol, engaging in risk-taking behaviour, low motivation and reduced energy, and changes in appetite or weight. Hear Matt’s story about his depression in our Navigating Parenthood podcast.  

Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural response to stress, but when fears, worries and feelings become overwhelming, intense and persistent, it’s a sign that help may be needed. Anxiety in adolescents is very common, with one in 14 young Australians aged 4–17 experiencing an anxiety disorder.

According to Sabina, warning signs of anxiety include: complaining of physical problems like headaches, stomach aches, a racing heart or sore muscles, difficulty sleeping, intense worrying, agitation or restlessness, avoiding difficult or new situations, self-consciousness and withdrawal from situations. Read more about anxiety in children and teens or listen to Gen’s story in our Navigating Parenthood podcast

Eating disorders

Eating disorders usually involve an unhealthy emphasis on, and relationship with, food and eating. The prevalence of eating disorders is hard to estimate due to varying diagnostic thresholds and the small number of large-scale population research programs. Numbers also vary according to the type of disorder. “It’s important to know that eating disorders can exist without weight loss,” says Sabina. “Someone with bulimia can appear to have a ‘normal’ weight but be secretly binging and purging.”

Sabina says the warning signs include: rapid weight loss, avoiding eating, excessive dieting or exercise, intense fear of gaining weight, deceptive behaviour around food, rigid food rituals and sleep disturbance.

How can we encourage kids to ask for help?

It’s worrying to note that research says struggling adolescents are less likely to seek help than those without psychological distress.

The top reasons young adults gave for not seeking help were stigma and embarrassment, fear, and a lack of support.

If you struggle to find a way to connect with your teen, there are methods to engage without feeling like you’re being overbearing or embarrassing.

“We can work harder to listen more than we talk and to give our kids the time and attention they crave from us,” says teen communication specialist, Rebecca Sparrow. “We can forge relationships in which our kids feel comfortable coming to us with their mistakes and bad judgement calls, and we can hold back on judging them for their missteps.”

Strategies for talking to your teen about mental health include:

  • Opening a conversation with a leading sentence such as: “I’ve noticed you’re…[spending more time alone/sleeping more or less/teary or angry]. I’m concerned and would love to find a time to talk about it”.
  • Choosing a good time to talk in a place that’s comfortable for you both and having your chats at times when there are no family deadlines or interruptions that force the conversation to end early.
  • Being okay with not knowing what to say and practising just being together in silence. Sometimes out of quietness, honesty finds space to emerge.

What to do if you’re still worried

If you’re concerned about your teen or a family member, you can seek professional help from your child’s school counsellor, your GP or paediatrician, a mental health service like those listed below, or a psychologist.

The HCF Navigating Parenthood  – Talking to Teens podcast is also full of useful, practical advice from experts and teens about how parents and their kids can have better, and more, conversations about the issues that are impacting their lives.

There are also expert resources you can access:

If you or your child is feeling depressed or anxious and need to talk to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Lindy Alexander
First published February 2020

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