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Mental health conditions

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Most teens have a lot to deal with. Maybe your schoolwork is hard, or you don’t have enough money. Maybe your friends fight, or your parents bug you, or you feel pressure to act a certain way to fit in. All that — plus your hormone changes — definitely can make you feel a little stressed or down at times. But feeling very sad, worried, angry, or hopeless more than just sometimes could be a sign that you have a mental health disorder.

There are several different kinds of mental health disorders that affect young people. You can learn about many of them here. The links below have lots of useful information on symptoms, treatments, and more. There’s one key point, though: If you are suffering, you can feel better. Get the help you need and deserve to have a good life!

Mental health problems may make you feel so bad that you think about ending your life. Don’t give up! Get help. And get help for a friend who talks about suicide, even if that person asks you not to. You could save a life. Learn more or call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) for help.

What are mental health disorders? arrow top

Mental health disorders are a group of illnesses that can affect your mood, thinking, or how you act. They can hurt your ability to focus, get along with other people, do basic tasks — and just enjoy life. They’re sometimes called mental illnesses, mental health conditions, or emotional and behavioral conditions. Whatever you call them, though, if you have one, you can feel all alone. But you are not alone! In fact, almost half of U.S. teens will have symptoms of a mental health problem before they turn 18.

It’s important to remember that mental health conditions are not signs of weakness or failure — they are medical problems. Usually, they are caused by a combination of your genes and something in the world around you. Sometimes that thing in the world around you can be a trauma, like being the victim of abuse or living through a crisis.

It’s also important to know that treatment can help. If you’re struggling, tell a parent, school counselor, or other trusted adult. You can feel better!

Drug problems and running away

Teens who have mental health issues like depression or anxiety also sometimes have trouble with alcohol or drugs. You may feel like drinking or using drugs offers an escape, but they’ll just make your life worse. Learn more about quitting.

Some teens who have mental health issues may think about running away from home. If you’re thinking about leaving or have already left, you can get help. Call 1-800-RUNAWAY.

Getting help: First steps arrow top

It can be hard to reach out for help. But remember this: Getting help isn’t a sign that you’re weak. It’s a sign you have the courage to get your life back on track!

If you’re worried about telling your parents, you might want to plan what you’ll say in advance. Then find a quiet time when you’re not likely to get interrupted. During a car ride might work, or maybe during a walk. Of course, it can be hard to raise an important topic like this. But most kids find that their parents want very much to help. If for some reason your parents can’t help, don’t give up. Talk to a school counselor, your religious leader, your regular doctor, or other trusted adult.

If contacting a health professional seems like the right move, your regular doctor can be a good place to start. He or she may suggest a mental health expert, like a psychiatrist or social worker. You also can find sources for mental health treatment online. If you are feeling suicidal, call 911 for immediate help.

There is no one test to determine if you have a mental disorder. Your doctor may do some tests, like blood tests, to rule out other causes for your problems. He or she also will ask you questions to figure out how to help you.

Your doctor or other care provider should come up with a plan just for you, based on what condition — or conditions — you have. Treatment may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Sticking to your treatment plan is your best bet for feeling better.

Getting help through therapy arrow top

Your treatment probably will include some sessions of therapy. That means talking to a professional counselor like a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker. If you feel uncomfortable about needing therapy, remember that getting help for your brain isn’t very different from getting help for your stomach, teeth, or any other part of you.

Of course, it can take a little time getting used to talking with someone about your problems. But therapists are trained to listen well, and they want to help. Also, therapists care a lot about protecting people’s privacy. If you’re concerned, though, ask about the privacy policy. As time goes on, you should feel comfortable with your therapist. If you don’t, or if you think you’re not getting better, tell your parent or guardian.  

Lots of people feel relief just from sharing their feelings and getting emotional support. That’s certainly part of therapy. But therapy also can teach you specific skills for coping with problems. It also can help you find ways to deal with stress and build healthy relationships. And it can help you figure out where you want to go in life and how to deal with any obstacles to getting there.

There are different types of therapy, and the kind you have can depend on the problems you’re facing. One kind of therapy that tends to work well for depression, social anxiety, and several other problems is cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches you ways to make your thoughts and behaviors healthier.

You also might go to group therapy. At group therapy, you will work with a therapist and other people who have problems like yours. There’s also play and art therapy, where you work on your feelings through playing or drawing and other creative activities. Therapy also could be with your family.

There are several other types of therapy as well. Whatever form it takes, therapy works best if you’re honest about any problems you’re facing at school or at home — or with drugs, alcohol, or any behaviors that can hurt your body and your mind.

Learn more about what to expect from seeing a therapist, whether you should tell friends about it, and other topics.

Getting help through medication arrow top

Some people with mental health conditions take medications as part of their treatment. These might include antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. Here are a few key points about mental health medications:

  • It can take a few weeks before you feel the medication working. Ask your doctor how long it might take. If you’re not feeling better after that, tell your parents/guardian or doctor.
  • Don’t stop taking any medication without talking with your doctor first. Stopping suddenly can cause problems.
  • Be smart and responsible about your medications. Take them when and how your doctor says, and never share them with others. Learn more about how to take medications safely.
  • Tell your doctor all medications and herbal remedies you’re taking. Some items don’t mix well with each other. For example, some medications make birth control pills less effective.

All medications can cause side effects. Doctors prescribe medications when they think the possible help is greater than the risks. Make sure to ask your doctor about the possible side effects of your medication and what to do if you get them.

Antidepressants and suicide

In rare cases, antidepressants can lead to an increased risk of suicide in children and teens. It’s very important to tell your parents or doctor if you are thinking about suicide.

You may have heard about herbal remedies and vitamins like St. John’s wort that people try for depression and other mental health issues. Some of these haven’t been proven to help, and some can block medications you’re taking. Always discuss any of these with your doctor first to stay safe and healthy.

What is depression? arrow top

Everybody feels down or sad at times, and being a teenager certainly can feel overwhelming. Having depression goes beyond that, though. It can drain your energy, fill you with sadness, and make even the simplest things seem really hard.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Sadness or crying for no clear reason
  • Being crabby, angry, or nervous
  • Not caring about anything
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Eating a lot less or more than usual
  • Sleeping more or having trouble sleeping
  • Not enjoying the things you usually enjoy
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Thinking about death or suicide

Many young people have depression in some form, from mild to more extreme. Girls are more likely to get it than boys. If you have some of the symptoms of depression and they get in the way of your everyday life, you should tell your parents or guardian or another trusted adult like your doctor or school nurse.

Without treatment, depression can get worse. With treatment, though, many young people say they feel the clouds of depression lift from their lives.

Getting help for depression

Did you know that only about half of depressed young people have told a professional about their depression? That’s a shame because treatment usually works really well. It’s worth it to get over any embarrassment to get the help you need to feel good again.

You can learn more about depression, including its different causes and types.

Could you have an eating disorder? arrow top

Eating disorders involve serious problems with eating behaviors. They include:

  • Anorexia nervosa (say: an-uh-REK-see-uh nur-VOH-suh), in which you don't eat enough because you think that you are fat when, in fact, you are much too thin
  • Bulimia nervosa (say: boo-LEE-mee-uh nur-VOH-suh), which involves overeating followed by getting rid of the food through using laxatives or causing yourself to throw up
  • Binge eating, which is out-of-control eating

Eating disorders happen more often to girls than to boys. They often happen together with other problems, like depression or body image issues.

Going to extremes to control what you eat and weigh sometimes makes a person feel more in control of her life. But the truth is that the disease is really in control — and can seriously damage your body. If you think you may have an eating disorder, get help as soon as possible. People with eating disorders can recover from them and go on to have wonderful, healthy lives.

Read more about eating disorders.

"Many eating-disordered patients are perfectionists, setting impossible standards for themselves. When they can't live up to these superhuman goals, they believe they are complete failures. I now realize that I have the right to be proud of the things I accomplish and if I can't be perfect at everything, that doesn't make me a failure. It makes me human."

Scarlet Pomers, musician and former co-star on TV’s "Reba"

Could you have an anxiety disorder? arrow top

Everybody feels worried from time to time, like maybe before a big test or a first date. But a person with an anxiety disorder will feel very fearful and unsure — and feel that way a lot of the time.

There are several different kinds of anxiety disorders, each with their own symptoms. They include:

  • Panic disorder. This condition causes panic attacks, which are sudden, strong feelings of fear for no clear reason. An attack can bring a rush of physical feelings like heart-pounding, shortness of breath, and dizziness.
  • Phobias. These are very strong fears of specific situations. These include being around dogs, flying in a plane, taking an elevator, and other things that are not as dangerous as the person thinks. Some people have social phobia, which means they worry a lot about embarrassing themselves around other people.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). A person with GAD worries a lot about many things, even when there is little or nothing to worry about.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). With OCD, a person has obsessions, which are repeated, upsetting thoughts. They also have compulsions, which are repeated actions to try to reduce the upsetting thoughts. Learn more about OCD.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD comes from having a terrifying experience, like surviving a hurricane or witnessing an attack. Symptoms include having nightmares or feeling like you are reliving the experience. Read more about PTSD.

You can get help if you have an anxiety disorder. You might get therapy and medication too. A mental health professional also might teach you ways to relax and to release some of the tension that can take over your body.

What are oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder? arrow top

The name “oppositional defiant disorder” comes from “opposing” and “defying” rules and people. People with ODD aren’t just a little difficult and uncooperative. They repeatedly act in angry and aggressive ways, often towards adults.

Girls may show the symptoms of ODD in less obvious ways than boys, experts now think. A girl with ODD might lie, for example, while a boy might get into a fight.

If ODD isn’t treated, it may lead to what’s called conduct disorder. This sometimes includes bullying, destroying property, and being cruel to animals — plus not feeling much regret about doing these things.

Kids with serious behavior problems often are seen as “bad,” when they really have a mental health problem. Sometimes these problems are caused by brain damage, child abuse, or other traumas. But kids with these issues can get help. Treatment may include therapy for the whole family since the behaviors can affect everyone involved. Usually this works better than “boot camps” and similar schools that use harsh approaches to get kids to behave.

What is bipolar disorder? arrow top

Bipolar disorder has two extreme sides — or poles — which is why it’s called “bipolar.” One extreme side includes the down, low-energy symptoms of depression. The other extreme side is mania, which can include being extremely energetic, feeling fantastic, having racing thoughts, taking risks, and acting irritable. Sometimes bipolar disorder is called manic-depressive disorder because of its two main moods. Occasionally, a person with bipolar disorder will have a “mixed state.” This means the person has both the sadness of depression and the extra energy of mania.

Bipolar disorder can make it so hard to enjoy the regular, everyday things.You may feel too “wired” to just hang out with friends. Or you may feel too down to get out of bed. Treatment can help get your life back on track though. You might have therapy and medication. Often, treatment also includes learning some essential skills. You might, for example, learn how to build a daily routine that supports good sleep and other habits that help moods stay calm and steady.

Read an article about bipolar disorder to learn more.

What is schizophrenia? arrow top

Schizophrenia (say: SKIT-so-free-nee-uh) is a condition that can affect a person’s sense of reality. People with schizophrenia may:

  • Hear or see things other people don’t hear or see (called hallucinations)
  • Believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting against them
  • Have trouble making themselves understood or expressing emotion
  • Sit for a long time without moving or talking

Schizophrenia doesn’t occur very often in teens or children, but it can. Some possible first signs are becoming isolated and having some unusual thoughts. Getting treatment early can help prevent symptoms from standing in the way of going to school and achieving life goals.

Do you cut or hurt yourself? arrow top

Some young people who are having emotional problems begin cutting, burning, or otherwise hurting themselves. This is called self-injury.

Teens who hurt themselves may have kept their feelings locked inside. They say that hurting themselves can be a way to let these feelings out or a way to stop feeling emotionally numb.

Self-injury is very serious. You could get infections, wind up in the hospital, or even die. If you have been hurting yourself, you definitely can get help. You can learn healthier ways to deal with your feelings and start protecting your wonderful body. Learn more about cutting.

Taking care of your mental health arrow top

Everyone has mental health needs even if they’re not suffering from a serious problem — just like everyone has physical health needs even if they don’t have the flu or some other illness. Having good mental health can help you handle stress, get along well with people, make smart decisions, and achieve your goals in life. 

There are lots of ways you can help take care of your mental health. You might:

  • Try exercise to lift your mood (and make you feel proud for taking good care of yourself)
  • Hang out with friends and family members who care about and support you
  • Find ways to de-stress, like yoga or deep-breathing
  • Volunteer in your community to help others and feel like you’re contributing

You also might focus on things that make you happy about yourself. There are lots of ways to boost your self-esteem and self-confidence.

You might make a list of things you like about yourself and successes you’ve had. Whatever your flaws or problems, you definitely have some great traits. Nobody else in the world is like you, and you have so much to offer!

 

Content last reviewed February 16, 2011
Page last updated October 31, 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.

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