Youth Mental Illness

October 5th, 2020: It’s the fourth day of national Mental Illness Awareness Week. Our discussion today turns to youth mental illness.

When do most mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders begin?

Early childhood! The CDC states that, “1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.”

Adolescence is a time of huge emotional, social, and physical changes that is easily affected by a wide variety of risk factors that can have an impact on a youth’s potential in life and their physical and mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies stressful factors in adolescence such as, “a desire for greater autonomy, pressure to conform with peers, exploration of sexual identity, and increased access to and use of technology.”

Additionally, the quality of home life and the relationships with peers is also significant. The WHO goes on to highlight other factors: “violence (including harsh parenting and bullying) and socioeconomic problems are recognized risks to mental health. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, which has a clear association with detrimental mental health.”

WHO further identifies vulnerable youths as those who, “[live] in humanitarian and fragile settings; adolescents with chronic illness, autism spectrum disorder, an intellectual disability or other neurological condition; pregnant adolescents, adolescent parents, or those in early and/or forced marriages; orphans; and adolescents from minority ethnic or sexual backgrounds or other discriminated groups.”

What kinds of challenges can youths face?

  • Emotional disorders
    • Globally, depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents aged 15-19 years and fifteenth for those aged 10-14 years
    • Anxiety is the ninth leading cause for adolescents aged 15-19 years and sixth for those aged 10-14 years
  • Childhood behavioral disorders
    • Childhood behavioral disorders are the second leading cause of disease burden in young adolescents aged 10-14 years and the eleventh leading cause among older adolescents aged 15-19 years.
  • Eating disorders
    • Eating disorders commonly emerge during adolescence and young adulthood. Eating disorders affect females more commonly than males
  • Psychosis
    • Conditions that include symptoms of psychosis most commonly emerge in late adolescence or early adulthood. Symptoms can include hallucinations or delusions
  • Suicide and self-harm
    • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15–24 years

Let’s look at the overall stats.

  • 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety
  • 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression
  • For children aged 3-17 years with anxiety, more than 1 in 3 also have behavior problems (37.9%) and about 1 in 3 also have depression (32.3%)
  • For children aged 3-17 years with behavior problems, more than 1 in 3 also have anxiety (36.6%) and about 1 in 5 also have depression (20.3%)

It’s easy to think that early detection leads directly to early treatment, but unfortunately that’s not the case. WHO finds that, “half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated,” leading to exacerbating issues in adulthood and beyond. The consequences of no treatment impair physical and mental health, limiting the potential to lead long and fulfilling lives.

Barriers to treatment include lack of awareness for resources, transportation issues if the adolescent can’t drive, lack of understanding about mental health challenges, stigma around mental health, the cost of treatment, etc.

Early detection is the first step, the second is treatment!

Despite these barriers, receiving treatment is crucial. NAMI offers some key signs that an evaluation may be necessary if they:

  • Have lost interest in things that they used to enjoy
  • Have low energy
  • Sleep too much or too little, or seem sleepy throughout the day
  • Are spending more and more time alone, and avoid social activities with friends or family
  • Fear gaining weight, or diet or exercise excessively
  • Engage in self-harm behaviors (e.g., cutting or burning their skin)
  • Smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs
  • Engage in risky or destructive behavior alone or with friends
  • Have thoughts of suicide
  • Have periods of highly elevated energy and activity, and require much less sleep than usual
  • Say that they think someone is trying to control their mind or that they hear things that other people cannot hear.

For younger children, NAMI recommends evaluations if the children:

  • Have frequent tantrums or are intensely irritable much of the time
  • Often talk about fears or worries
  • Complain about frequent stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause
  • Are in constant motion and cannot sit quietly (except when they are watching videos or playing videogames)
  • Sleep too much or too little, have frequent nightmares, or seem sleepy during the day
  • Are not interested in playing with other children or have difficulty making friends
  • Struggle academically or have experienced a recent decline in grades
  • Repeat actions or check things many times out of fear that something bad may happen.

Mental health promotion and prevention programs are key to helping youths identify their own mental health struggles and guide them to the proper recourse for treatment. Mental Health Greensboro has created a youth program of its own, intended to address the plethora of issues that plague youths dealing with mental health challenges.

MHG’s Teens Gotta Talk is designed to teach coping skills which will help to enable high schoolers to manage stressors impacting their personal life, school performance, and attendance. TGT consists of three evidence-based modules incorporating lessons and activities offered, including Stress Management, Self-Esteem, and Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention.

Currently, school and community-based programs aimed at helping teens are focused on educating adults to intervene. Teens Gotta Talk is the only program incorporating peer support to encourage teens to help each other. The goals of Teens Gotta Talk are to address the mental health challenges inhibiting teens from reaching their full potential by promoting self-reliance, self-confidence, resiliency, and self-responsibility, creating a stable foundation for future academic and professional achievement. Measures of success of the program include reduced absenteeism, improved grades and class participation, and reduced instances of self-harm and suicide. Overall, Teens Gotta Talk helps teens find their own strength to begin living a life of hope and fulfillment.

Remember, early detection and treatment is crucial to living a healthy and fulfilling life!

See you tomorrow!


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