Beyond the mask: Signs that reveal mental illness in teens


For a teenager, life can be overwhelming. Hormones are changing. Childhood is giving way to adulthood. It’s no wonder, then, that teenagers sometimes suffer from mood swings and sleep a little more — or a little less — than usual.

Unfortunately, mental illnesses also pop up during those teen years. Some examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and borderline personality disorder. These illnesses often mimic typical teenager struggles, only tenfold.

How can a parent — or a teacher — recognize when a teenager is suffering from mental illness? Here are a few signs to look for.

1. Energy level

Teenagers might stay up all night or sleep the day away. Although some change in energy level is expected as children reach adolescence, a more extreme change occurs with the onset of mental illness. For instance, a teenager with bipolar disorder might stay awake for several days at a time. A teenager with depression might prefer sleep over friends or favorite activities.

2. Mood swings

How can you tell the difference between teenage moodiness or a normal mood swing and something more severe? The teen’s parents and friends should have a baseline idea of what is normal for that person and what is abnormal. For example, a teenager who is usually cheerful and bubbly shouldn’t abruptly become solemn and withdrawn for weeks on end. Although it can be difficult to distinguish normal mood swings from symptoms of mental illness, it’s always important for parents and teachers not to diminish what teenagers are feeling.

3. School performance

Symptoms associated with mental illness can distract teenagers and impede their ability to concentrate. Often, these difficulties in attention and concentration are reflected by changes in school performance. Straight-A students might find themselves struggling to get B’s and C’s, and students who usually get C’s might start failing.

4. Physical symptoms

Mental disorders not only affect emotions — in fact, numerous physical symptoms are often associated with mental illness. Teenagers who are suffering from mental illness might complain about frequent headaches or nausea. They might have sore limbs. Their appetite might vanish. Physical symptoms should never be taken lightly, especially when the emotional symptoms are also present.

5. Self-medication

Living with mental illness is difficult, especially for teenagers. Not only are they trying to solidify their identity and adjust to young adulthood, but their brains are actively rebelling against them.

Teenagers aren’t always aware that their mental illness can be treated. For this reason, they often attempt to relieve their symptoms through either drugs or alcohol. If a parent or teacher uncovers substance abuse, it’s very likely that mental illness is also at play.

If you suspect that a teenager you know is suffering from a mental health disorder, the best thing to do is to consult a professional as soon as possible. Early identification — and treatment — can make a world of difference.

At White River Academy, we recognize that teenagers are people — not disorders. This is why our clinicians use customized, evidence-based and comprehensive treatment to help each adolescent with what he is specifically dealing with. For more information about this boarding school for troubled boys, contact 866-520-0905.

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