Michigan Association of Health Plans

10 mental health awareness tips for older teens and young adults

This story appeared in the University of Michigan Health Blog. Read more here

Whether preparing for higher education, starting a new job, or joining the military, teens are entering or navigating a new stage of life, which comes with intense emotions and feelings, often increasing the risk for mental health concerns.

Additionally, this time of life comes with the desire to be more independent, making it a critical time for you, as a parent, peer, teacher and co-worker to understand what your child, friend, student or colleague is going through and how it may be affecting their mental wellness.

Here, clinical psychologist Emily Bilek, Ph.D., and clinical social worker Natalie Burns, LMSW, both from the Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry and the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center, provide more background on the issue, tips about managing mental health illnesses, risk factors in young people to watch for and what you can do to help.

1. A mental health condition is the result of multiple causes, not just one

Studies show that about half of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24, making this a critical group for the onset of mental health problems.

So what exactly causes this onset? According to research, 30% to 40% of mental health disorders are related to genetic causes, and 60% to 70% are related to the environment that the individual is in from early childhood onward, meaning everything from their physical surroundings to their relationships.

Mental health conditions are not caused by character flaws or physical characteristics of the individual, but rather because of chemical imbalances in the brain, stress and trauma due to early life experiences and family history.

2. There are no bad emotions

There is a wide range of emotions that are part of the human experience, and it is important to express all of them, rather than suppressing any.

It is common to place emotions like sadness, fear, anxiousness, and anger under a label that they are “bad” or suppressing these emotions because of the perceived difficulty to cope with them. While it may feel comfortable to do so at the time, selectively numbing emotions can lead to negative consequences in the future.

3. Be aware of new or sudden changes

Being human – and especially a teenager or young adult – comes with many ups and downs. Feelings of highs and lows are inevitable, but the key is to look for whether these feelings are affecting one’s ability to do what they want or need on a daily basis.

If you know someone is experiencing concerning symptoms, ask: is there a dramatic change in normal functioning? If yes, then professional help may be needed.

4. Understand that social media isn’t just a teen problem

From social comparison, to biased media consumption, to procrastination, social media can lead to many negative effects on your mental health, young and older. Validating someone’s struggles with social media and recognizing their vulnerability to it is important when helping those that are struggling with balancing its use.

A resource parents can use while navigating their teens’ online engagement is Techno Sapiens, a blog created by Jacqueline Nesi, a psychologist who studies the role of social media in adolescents’ mental health and development.

5. Know that the pandemic will continue to have lasting impacts on many teenagers and young adults

Research shows many negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health in teens, especially due to the switch to virtual learning in the early months. Adolescents are hard-wired for connection, and losing this sense of belonging from school can lead to lasting feelings of isolation. Additionally, spending more time in unstable home environments can increase emotional instability.

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