October 10 is World Mental Health Day, an international day of recognition designed to help raise awareness and lessen the stigma of mental illness. 2018’s focus is on young people and the challenges they are facing today.

In the United States, almost half of all teenagers (45.9 percent) have experienced some kind of mental illness. For one in five, that illness qualifies as severe. Moreover, half of all long-term mental illnesses begin by age 14, but many go undiagnosed and untreated until adulthood.

Prevention and early detection of mental illness in teens is imperative; with support and treatment, teens can grow and thrive. The consequences of untreated mental illness are tragic: Suicide is the second leading cause of death in teenagers.

“I think mental health issues are becoming more and more prevalent,” says Jessica Wood, licensed clinical psychologist and Clinical Director at Shelterwood. “We’re seeing an increase in depression, an increase in anxiety. It’s on the rise.”

Adolescence is one of the most stressful times in life. Teens’ brains are still developing as they form their identities, gain responsibilities and prepare for adulthood.

“Our kids today are bombarded with so much from so many different directions,” says Wood. “There are so many different environments and different people impacting our kids, at earlier ages, too.”

Wood explains that teens can be overwhelmed by all these inputs, which can hinder their ability to manage stressors, develop strong frontal lobes and establish good emotional and social regulation skills.

The World Health Organization agrees, saying greater exposure to risk factors leads to higher rates of mental illness in teens. These risk factors can be as individual as specific living conditions and family relationships to more widespread cultural practices—such as increased media exposure—that affect almost all teens.

“I think that with the increase in the use of technology, it is easier to not have those face-to-face connections, to not have those physical social connections,” Wood says. “You can more easily withdraw. And I do think that is impacting.”

What can parents do to encourage their teens’ mental health?

Be a safe communicator
“The biggest way parents can help is that connection piece: Keeping the lines of communication open,” Wood says.

Practice active listening skills and reassure your teen you’re here and you care.

The Department of Health & Human Services has a helpful list of gentle mental health conversation starters, including: “I’ve been worried about you. Can we talk about what you are experiencing? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?”

Don’t judge
Although understanding is increasing, there is still a strong stigma against mental illness in our culture. It’s important to model respect and compassion when talking about mental illness or interacting with those suffering. It’s essential to listen to teens without blaming.

“I think sometimes people can feel judged and not want to say anything,” Wood says. “Being more empathetic and encouraging that open dialogue and communication is so important.”

Nurture the relationship
As always, building a strong relationship with your teen will help them, no matter what difficulties they face. Woods encourages parents to engage, plan regular activities together and foster that one-on-one connection.

Watch for red flags
You may not recognize a mental health issue immediately. Indications of illness can be subtle and may include:

Poor self-care
Avoiding certain locations (such as school)
Disinterest in activities they used to enjoy
Not eating
Using substances
Sleeping more frequently
An increase in negative comments and/or attitude

If you’re seeing warning signs, don’t wait. Talk to your teen right away.

Get extra support when needed
As with physical illnesses, mental illnesses can range from minor to extremely serious. When a teen’s mental health is disrupting school, social and/or family life, it’s time to seek professional help. Empower your teen by involving them in the search for appropriate guidance.

“If they do need extra help, engaging them in the process of finding additional support is important,” says Wood.

Shelterwood’s residential treatment program is innovative, customized to the individual, and rooted in a healthy relational environment. If your teen is struggling with mental health issues, we want you to know there’s hope. Reach out today to find out more about how Shelterwood can help.