In my 12 years of practice as a counselor, I found that many adolescents and young adult clients had been suffering emotional pain long before anyone else was aware. Young people often internalize pernicious myths about mental and emotional health that prevent them from seeking help (I’ve written about harmful mental health myths here “5 Persistent Mental Health Myths”) — from shame about their feelings to a lack of awareness that help is available.
At the same time, it’s easy for busy adults to miss signs that the young people in their lives are struggling, and to dismiss what they do observe as “typical teen behavior.”
I want to encourage parents, guardians, educators, coaches, and other adults who share their lives with young people to be familiar with the signs someone is struggling. I’ve included a helpful list from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) below.
Before I share the list of signs that a young person may be in distress, I want to say emphatically that if someone talks about harming themselves or others, get help immediately. Call 911 or one of the other 24/7 critical response resources cited at the bottom of this article.
Don’t dismiss behavior that indicates a problem and don’t wait for them to ask for help.
Even before signs of difficulty begin to surface, let the young people in your care know you take them seriously, that emotional struggles are common, and that support is available if and when they need it.
The following list of signs someone is struggling mentally can be found on NAMI’s website (https://nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Warning-Signs-and-Symptoms):
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
- Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
- Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
- Avoiding friends and social activities
- Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
- Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
- Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
- Changes in sex drive
- Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
- Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (“lack of insight” or anosognosia)
- Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
- Thinking about suicide
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
- An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
NAMI also notes that mental health conditions can also begin to develop in young children. Because they’re still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral. Symptoms in children may include the following:
- Changes in school performance
- Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school
- Hyperactive behavior
- Frequent nightmares
- Frequent disobedience or aggression
- Frequent temper tantrums
Source: NAMI, Warning Signs & Symptoms
If a young person in your care shows any of these signs, seek advice and guidance from a doctor or reach out to NAMI’s helpline Monday through Friday, 10 am–6 pm, ET 1–800–950-NAMI (6264) or email NAMI at email@example.com.
For other resources, including where to call for immediate help, see the information in our disclaimer below.
Disclaimer: This blog is not meant as professional advice or counseling. If you are in emotional distress or experiencing thoughts of harm to yourself or others, help is available 24/7:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255 (TALK) Spanish & English; Deaf & Hard of Hearing TTY 800–799–4889
- Text HELLO to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor
- Call 911
- If you need mental health treatment but cannot afford it, contact Rise Above The Disorder, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to making mental health care accessible to everyone: YouAreRAD.org