Young people and mental health

This Page was last reviewed and changed on September 22nd, 2021

Content Overview

For children and teenagers, talking about mental health can be daunting as they may be worried about the reaction of their parents or their friends at school. While there has been great progress made in removing the stigma from mental health issues, there is still work to be done in looking at mental health problems in the same way we recognise physical health issues; not as something to be hidden away, but as a common part of life which many struggle with on a daily basis.

This page will address some of the common misconceptions about mental health, explain the different types of mental illness which affect children and teenagers, and talk about the different treatments and mental health services which are available.

The many faces of mental health

We are now beginning to understand that prevention is so often the best course of treatment, but mental health conditions appear in many different forms and are not always easy to spot in others or even yourself. Some people who are inwardly struggling try to hide the symptoms of mental illness from the rest of the world. The factors which contribute to mental illness vary from person to person but they may be genetic, or conditional such as the result of stress, trauma, or substance use.

According to mind.org, every week in England, 8% of people admitted to struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression, while a further 4% of people said they were experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Over the course of our lifetimes, the figures are cause for further concern, with 2% of people being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, 20% having suicidal thoughts at some point, and around 7% actually attempting suicide.

What is particularly worrying is that the research shows that only one in eight people with a mental health problem are receiving treatment. With so many people not getting the right support and advice, society is facing an ever-growing crisis.

Mental health vs diagnoses

Despite the above statistics, it is very important to understand the difference between maintaining good mental health through exercise, regular sleep and mindfulness, and diagnosed mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and addiction. Everyone can feel run down if they don’t look after their mental health, but genuine mental illness needs extra care and understanding.

For example, according to the registered charity Anxiety UK, around 0.6% of adults experience panic attacks and panic disorder. There are various factors responsible for this, but while some may be genetic, many panic attacks are brought on by stress, trauma, or difficulties in life such as financial worries, a difficult home life, or a relentless work environment. While this doesn’t make the situation any easier for the person involved, it does mean that there may be alternative treatment approaches to help them cope with the symptoms. For instance, many people with general anxiety or panic disorders find that meditation, yoga or mindfulness exercises help to reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

On the other hand, different types of mental health problems such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts and addiction usually need a specialised treatment approach. This may involve psychiatric medication, therapy and advice on different types of coping strategies to help the person deal with their mental illness and stop it from taking over their life. As noted above, however, so few people are receiving the treatment and support they need to help them deal with their mental health problems that something needs to drastically change.

Mental health in young people

Young people are more likely to suffer poor mental health through stress and hormonal changes. Some experience feelings of depression which can affect their school life, their relationships with friends and family, and their own self esteem. However, the adults in their lives may just think that outward signs of a developing mental illness are because of puberty or are just normal behaviour at that age. The challenges of school, college, A Level and GCSE results, and the increasing responsibilities of young adulthood can all begin to pile up.

Mental health and drug use

Young people are also at a high risk of developing mental health problems as a result of addiction or substance use. Increased cannabis use has seen rates of schizophrenia among young people increase rapidly over the past two decades. In fact, most teenagers who use cannabis suffer from mental illness or psychiatric disorders, so seeking treatment as soon as possible is critical.

Mental health and underage drinking

Likewise, the number of adolescents who drink alcohol regularly is increasing year on year which can impact their education, their physical health, and land them in legal trouble. Peer pressure can make it difficult for children and young people to avoid drink or drugs, or to stop taking them before they develop a risk of addiction. This can then lead to various mental health issues, depression being the most common. At UKAT, we always advise that if you start experience symptoms of depression when you drink, you should stop immediately. If you start to feel better after a few weeks, you will know that it was due, at least in part, to drinking alcohol.

Getting access to support

It can also be more difficult for young people to access mental health services and support as they may have never made a doctor’s appointment on their own or may be worried that a healthcare professional will tell their parents. This can cause them to become more isolated and leave them to struggle with the matter alone. If you are a young person who is looking for more information or advice about drugs, alcohol or mental health, have a read of our UKAT fact sheet, or give us a call.

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Signs that something is wrong

It can be very difficult to spot signs of mental health issues and common conditions such as depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. It is crucial that parents, family members, teachers and other adults in positions of responsibility receive advice and support to help increase their awareness. There are various signs and symptoms of mental health issues in young people to be aware of including:

  • Signs of general unhappiness or dissatisfaction
  • Not wanting to go out to meet friends or attend social events
  • Self-harm or talking about self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts or words
  • Angry outbursts
  • Violence or other bad behaviour
  • Uncharacteristic moodiness or changes in personality
  • Different eating habits
  • Weight loss
  • Problems sleeping
  • Regular stomach aches, headaches or other physical issues
  • Lack of concentration or focus
  • Poor performance in school
  • Truancy or an unwillingness to go to school

Of course, many of these are also signs of other conditions, including child abuse, physical illness or just normal teenage behaviour. That is why it is so important to stay aware of where your child is, how they are feeling and what is going on in their personal life (without being overly pushy or paranoid). Being in regular contact with teachers, the parents of your child’s friends, and anyone else who may be able to give you an insight into any of the above signs and symptoms can be crucial.

This will help you to understand if your child or young family member is struggling with mental health issues, addiction or if there is something else that is worrying them. Identifying a potential mental health problem as early as possible will help them to get access to the treatment and advice they need and hopefully prevent the issue from getting worse.

Talking to a young person about support

Approaching a young person in your family about mental issues is a sensitive situation and you need to make sure that you do it in the right way. The last thing you want is to risk them feeling like they are being accused of something. The best thing to do is to sit down with them somewhere they feel safe and open up about your feelings and concerns about what might happen if they get the help they need.

Remind them that everybody has their own struggles and that there is nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. It may be that they are just experiencing the typical problems that students and young people face as they approach adulthood, but if there is a potential mental health issue, explain the need to have it diagnosed as soon as possible before it affects their life in a more serious way.

If there is a problem with addiction, you don’t need to stage a full-on intervention like you may have seen on television. Just talk with them about the signs you have noticed and ask them if there is anything you can do to help. You can search for treatment options together, or read some of the help and advice resources on our website. Teenagers and young people can be naturally shy or reluctant to share their feelings with their friends or family, so it may be easier for them to speak to one of our professionals.

Social pressure and technology

Mental health issues among young people is nothing new, but the social pressures that young people experience online and through social media means that they are constantly inundated with potentially harmful information and media. For example, constant exposure to celebrity culture on Instagram can cause feelings of inadequacy.

The impossible beauty standards we see in the media can cause various mental health issues and can even lead to different types of eating disorders such as childhood bulimia and anorexia.
Furthermore, technology has made it possible for bullies to target children in their own homes. The online world can be a very threatening place and it can be really difficult for family members or schools to know what is happening in young people’s lives on social media.

The glamorisation of mental health problems

One slightly peculiar side effect of mental health issues become less stigmatised is that it has started to become a bit of a fad with everybody talking about having some kind of mental health disorder. We often hear friends or famous people glibly talking about how they are “super OCD” or need their morning coffee to prevent their “bipolar disorder” from flaring up.
While it could be argued that this is better than before when the world used to stigmatise mental health issues, glamorising it now can harm the people who have genuine problems. Rather than raising awareness of mental health, it normalises it to the extent that they believe everybody feels the same way as they do and so they don’t seek mental health services or advice.

Addiction as a coping mechanism

Addiction and mental health often go hand-in-hand. Addiction is both a mental health disorder in its own right, and can often develop as a coping mechanism for other different types of mental issues. Rather than seeking mental health services, some people self-medicate with drugs or alcohol which exacerbates their existing mental health problems. For young people, problems at school, with friends, family, break ups and academic pressure can all lead to childhood and teenage drinking and drug use, which are particularly harmful to brains that are not fully developed.

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Help and support

This link between mental health and addiction is why at UKAT, we approach addiction treatment in a holistic way. We provide different therapies and treatments for both the physical side of addiction and the mental health causes and consequences. We understand how difficult it can be for people of any age to access advice, but that is particularly hard for children and young people.

If you are a young person who is looking for advice or support, then visit this list of useful sources available to you. Remember that prevention is often better than reactive treatments, so the earlier action can be taken, the better. Nobody needs to suffer alone, and there is so much support and advice available to you about how to access addiction treatment and other mental health services. All you need to do is reach out.

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