10 mental health awareness tips for older teens and young adults

Here’s what young people, parents, peers, teachers and co-workers need to look for, and what to do.

Summer can be especially turbulent for high school graduates and others in their late teens and early 20s.

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.

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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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It’s important to consider these effects when evaluating the current state of someone’s mental health, even if they are back to “normal” in-person learning and working, and financial stress has reduced. A young person who lost loved ones but did not have normal grieving opportunities, such as funerals during the past two and a half years, may also be affected in the long term.

6. Avoid tying self-worth to an outcome

Academic pressures and imposter syndrome are common problems that adolescents encounter in their daily lives. Not doing well on an exam or as well as peers may induce feelings of unworthiness.

As a parent or adult in a young person’s life, it’s important to model self-compassion and remind them that intrinsic worth isn’t based on accomplishments. 

7. Help a teen or young adult get care or be more involved in the care they’re receiving

About 75% of young adults with mental health problems are not in contact with mental health services. Furthermore, lacking a sense of agency or self-efficacy in their care may lead to less receptiveness to getting care.

Collaborative care with both a patient and professional’s input and involvement can lead to the best outcomes.

SEE ALSO: Fewer Deaths Among Adults Who Got Extra Support as Suicidal Teens

8. Ask questions about their treatment

Though many medications are available for anxiety and depression, a combination of behavioral and talk therapy is also proven to be effective treatment, alone or in combination with medication.

Staying curious and asking questions about the latest research and options for therapy or medication can help ensure the person you know is getting the best care. 

9. Create more welcoming, safe spaces for those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community

LGBTQ+ teenagers and young adults are almost twice as likely as their peers to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. This is primarily due to experiencing higher levels of discrimination and a lack of acceptance from society.

Providing more affirming spaces to encourage social connectedness is a prime way to help minorities feel seen and respected.

10. Have constructive conversations around suicide

An increase in emergency room visits for adolescents suffering with suicidal ideation in recent years is a clear indication that new ways must be found to redirect teenagers and young adults from acting on thoughts of self-harm.

Being aware of the risk factors and speaking up when you feel a friend or family member may be in trouble is vital to saving lives. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has great talking points if someone is concerned about a young person’s suicide risk and wants to reach out.

If you or someone you know experiences a mental health crisis, chat online with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call them at 800-273-8255. For veterans experiencing a mental health crisis: Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat live, or text 838255. Starting in mid-July, a suicide hotline will also be available by dialing 988 from any phone.