Teens and Mental Health: Tips for Adolescents and The Grown-Ups Who Guide Them

girl being comforted by a doctor, showing the struggles of teens and mental health DISCLAIMER: The following story will be exploring themes related to suicide and mental health struggles for teens. We’re sharing this disclaimer for two reasons.

  • We know that subject matter like this can be emotionally triggering for some, so we want to be sensitive to those individuals in our audience who may prefer to skip out on this read
  • We would like to take a moment to point out that while yes, parenting/leading/guiding teenagers can be a BIG, daunting job, it’s far from all bad. This season of life gets a BAD rap. What we usually hyper focus in on are the struggles and things to dread, but we fail to showcase the sheer beauty it can hold. While some will struggle during this time, for many it’s a season of growth, development and discovery, so guardians, please don’t shy away from fully embracing every aspect of adolescence with the children in your life – they need you now more than ever.

By Dr. Beth AuslanderDr. Beth Auslander, UTMB practioner

Adolescence is a time characterized by many changes, both biologically and experientially, which enable them to transition into adulthood.

While many teens progress through this period well, others may have more difficulty and experience mental health issues as a result of situational adversities, academic pressures and relational stressors.

According to a recent release by the CDC, both teenage boys and girls today are reporting increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, so while there are still those who weather this season of life just fine, the number facing difficulties seems to be steadily growing.

The report, which features data gathered in 2021, revealed that 57% of U.S. teen girls and 28% of teen boys felt persistently sad or hopeless at the time of the assessment. When looking at the data across the last decade, figures for both boys and girls grew, with girls experiencing the sharpest increase of 60% from 2011 figures.

Statistics on teens and mental health like that can be a scary, rude awakening for parents, guardians and support people charged with caring for individuals in this season of life.

In my role as a licensed psychologist and professor with the UTMB Health Department of Pediatrics and mental health director with the Teen Health Center of Galveston, I help teens tap into their strengths, guide them through their developmental experiences, teach them coping skills and connect them to their support people whether that’s their parents, teachers or someone else in their lives. And it’s a job I take seriously.

Historically, some factors contributing to individuals who struggle mentally throughout development and adolescence typically have one or more of the following:

  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • Neglect or overall family dysfunction
  • Separation from parents as a result of divorce or other means

These situational issues have been around much longer than recent years, but things like the COVID-19 pandemic, mass violence and loss as a result of both are partially to blame for the recent jump in data.

Beyond assessing feelings of hopelessness, the survey also gathered information on suicide, revealing that 30 percent of girls and 14% of boys seriously considered it during the past year.

WARNING SIGNS

Individuals citing these feelings typically exhibit warning signs such as:

  • Overcoming the fear of death by researching it and writing about it
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and being trapped
  • Worrying that they are a burden to those around them
  • Increase use of harmful substances
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns

HOW PARENTS/GUARDIANS CAN HELP

If a teen in your life is exhibiting some or all of these signs or more, below are some tips to help intervene, but more than anything it’s important to first remain nonjudgmental. The last thing you want is for the individual to begin feeling like it’s a character flaw and that something is wrong with them.

  • Reiterate that you are there for them and ask them directly if they’re wanting to die – don’t tiptoe around it.
  • Find ways to connect—it can be through a walk, a shared activity – anything that fosters a bond and helps bring them out of their trapped cycle.
  • Remove access to means of harm
  • Remind your teen of health ways they can cope with negative emotions
    • Taking a different perspective
    • Stating a coping mantra
    • Reaching out to others for support
    • Exercising
    • Doing a relaxation practice
    • Problem solving
  • Make it about the mental illness and not the individual
  • Practice reflective listening
  • Discuss reasons for living
  • Connect with community resources and mental health professionals

THE WHOLE PICTURE AND A PATH FORWARD

This list is far from a foolproof, one-size-fits-all solution. The road toward a mentally healthier future is a windy one that will rely heavily on collaboration between educators, parents, mental health providers, health care providers, governmental agencies, philanthropic foundations and the youth themselves. The path to healing in this space is paved by the people around us.

In the meantime, do what you can to model healthy behaviors for the children in your life and keep them from experiences that could cause harm.

And remember, the majority of adolescence is still a magical, beautiful time filled with defining experiences that give our children the chance to exercise their expanding minds. Don’t worry yourself sick about how you will handle these situations, instead just jump in feet first and lead with your heart, that’s all our kids want, anyway.


RESOURCES FOR TEENS AND MENTAL HEALTH

  • Local pediatricians
  • School counselors
  • Gulf coast crisis hotline – CALL: 866-729-3848
  • Suicide and Crisis hotline – CALL OR TEXT: 988

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The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB Health) system of care includes hospitals and emergency departments on four campuses, a network of primary and specialty care clinics, urgent care and walk-in services, and collaborations with physicians throughout the region. UTMB Health serves patients throughout Texas, and features an extensive network of primary and specialty care clinics and centers that complement hospitals on three campuses.

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Meagan is a Dallas native who has lived in the Katy area for over a decade. She kicked a soccer ball all the way to Louisiana to attend college at her family’s alma mater of LSU, where she promptly fell in love with a Texas Aggie in Baton Rouge for an internship. After swimming back to Texas following Hurricane Katrina, Matt and Meagan fell in love with the Houston area and now couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Following several years of infertility, their miracle twins Ryan and Quinn were born in June of 2010. She believes there is nothing better than a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio, a large Sonic Diet Coke, sushi take-out, Girls Nights Out, and a mindless book to curl up with. Besides playing chauffeur and catering to the whims of her children, Meagan also is the Co-Owner of Houston Moms Blog. You can keep up with Meagan at The Clanahan Fam and on Instagram @meaganclanahan!

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