When it comes to noticing and identifying mental health issues in teenagers, it can be a huge struggle to pick the difference between a bad week, a bad month or something more serious.
The World Health Organisation estimates 50 percent of us will deal with mental health issues at some point in our lives. Despite this, the stigma around asking for help persists. "We need to get rid of this idea that it only ever happens to someone else or that there’s something wrong with you," says Nick Duigan, Senior Clinical Advisor of the National Youth Mental Health Foundation Headspace.
It's no coincidence that adolescence is often the first time these issues present themselves. "There are a huge number of changes happening right at the time where they’re basically biologically hamstrung…You’ve got puberty happening, you’ve got major changes in the brain, growth spurts – and these biological changes mean that the capacity to experience really strong and intense emotions for the first time are starting to happen, “says Nick. "That emotional intensity just happens to be paired with the same time at which there are a whole lot of neural changes happening, so the brain’s capacity to keep an even keel and look at things more calmly is really impacted."
For parents, understanding what depression is, and the difference between feeling sad or low, and when these emotions might be morphing into worrying territory is crucial. “Sometimes the signs aren’t clear, but in terms of diagnostic criteria for depression, there is a set of experiences that are consistent,” Nick says. “There’s a change in their mood, they no longer enjoy things they used to enjoy, and essentially this happens for a period greater than two weeks.”
Know what's normal for your child
Spotting the signs is all about knowing what's normal for your child specifically. "For some, it can be easy enough to read for those around them, but for others, they might appear to be externally carrying on quite well," says Nick. "It’s about noticing when there are changes when they just don’t seem quite right. When they seem to be going straight to their bedroom and staying there for a few hours after school, or maybe they’re becoming far more irritable around the dinner table. Parents will know their children really well and they’ll know what’s in character and out of character.”
Changes in behaviour
Withdrawal, isolation and avoidance of particular people, places or events are all common symptoms something might not be quite right. “There may be a sense of hopelessness – so that includes changes in eating and sleeping patterns – difficulty concentrating, little motivation,” Nick says. “Young people at that age are finding out who they are, what they care about, what they want to be – they’re pushing boundaries and pushing away from their parents, but at the same time they really still need their parents for emotional support and nurturing. Parents need to be emotionally attuned to what’s going on with their kids, so it can be a tricky dance.”
Pay attention during stressful periods
Research shows there’s not a huge difference in how depression is experienced in young people and adults, so it's no surprise that challenging periods can often be a trigger. "One of the potential precipitants for depression is major life stressors, and for many young people, this may be the first time they’re experiencing a whole stack of these stressors," says Nick. "That may play a part in their first onset of depression."
Building resilience takes time
There's a lot of rhetoric around resilience (and lack thereof) — especially in young people, but the truth is, it’s not a natural-born talent. “Resilience isn’t this magical thing that someone either has or doesn’t have. What’s important to know is that resilience doesn’t just live in a person," says Nick. "Teens need a connected and supported and integrated community and a world around them that enables them to practice and learn resilience, so it doesn’t happen by accident.”
Don't put off having the conversation
Whatever you do, don't procrastinate starting the conversation. "If we can arm young people and parents to get on top of signs of depression and anxiety early, it can reduce the amount of time and suffering that this young person goes through," says Nick. "Not only is it possible to reduce the intensity of the difficulty but this can significantly reduce the time they feel this way. That’s important because at those developmental years we really don’t want them to miss out on building social relationships, progressing through school, TAFE, uni, or apprenticeships." While it can feel like a terrifying challenge for both parents and teens, establishing ways to manage mental health issues will help them for years to come. "If we can equip people early on in life with the skills to handle difficulty, then they’re able to use those skills throughout the rest of their life," says Nick. "It can be a potential opportunity for growth or learning.”
Make mental health an ongoing dialogue
Don't wait until things become a concern to start talking about mental health. "Normalise these types of conversations early, before the teenager years if possible. If you’re already there with a sixteen-year-old, remember it’s never too late," says Nick. "It’s about trying to set up that opportunity and relationship, and in order to do that – we need to have the conversations not in times of crisis. In times of crisis, people are not able to think rationally, clearly, or logically, so it’s not a good time to try and address underlying issues. It has to be at a time when your teenager is calm, and when they feel safe. They can’t feel like they’re trapped or cornered.”
For support, information, and guidance, please visit Headspace. Headspace are the National Youth Mental Health Foundation providing early intervention mental health services to 12-25-year-olds, along with assistance in promoting young peoples’ wellbeing.