Adolescent Mental Health - 5 Warning Signs That Need Your Attention

By Deborah Clark Ebel

Do you ever look at your teen and wonder, "What's with him (or her)?" If you had your own troubles as a teen, you may silently dismiss your child's negative behavior as a passing phase, hoping that things will improve and that he'll quickly and safely pass through the storm.

Or, on the other hand, you may worry whether things might get worse.

In either case, you must be aware of some signs that your adolescent must be seen by a mental health professional as quickly as possible, and five of those signs are given below.

If your child is thinking or talking about suicide, you must act quickly. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) issued a special press release in 2007 concerning the alarming increase in suicides for young people ages one to nineteen: an 18.2 percent increase from 2003 to 2004. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the United States for fifteen to twenty-year-olds and the fourth leading cause of death for ten to fourteen-year-olds. If your child or adolescent tells you that he or she feels suicidal or wants to die, take them seriously. Do not think that it is "just a joke" or a way to get attention. You cannot take that chance.

Experimenting with drugs and alcohol during adolescence is not uncommon, and there a lot of reasons they do this. The average age at which boys first try alcohol is 11 years, and for girls it is 13 years. There is no way to know ahead of time who will go on to develop a serious drug or alcohol problem, but the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism tells us that adolescents who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21. If your teen is showing signs of unusual fatigue, reddened or glazed eyes, personality changes, poor judgment, dropping grades, or troubles with the law, you need to address the problem.

Expressions of worthlessness or guilt on the part of your adolescent may be a sign that he feels that there is nothing left for live for. Telling you that he doesn't feel "good enough", or that he is caught in a situation that he can't get out of, or that he feels devastated or alone in the world may be your adolescent's way of telling you that he wants and needs help.

Some children innocently harm insects or other small animals when they are very young, but most are guided by their parents and teachers to be gentle with animals ("Don't pull the cat's tail) and quickly develop empathy and concern for any pain that an animal may feel.

Unfortunately, some may continue abusing animals and extend that cruelty on to people. The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and Northeastern University tell us that those who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people and four times more likely to commit property crimes than are individuals without a history of animal abuse. The American Psychiatric Association considers animal cruelty to be one of the diagnostic criteria of conduct disorder.

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, has very much been in the news of late, as the media has speculated that some celebrities may be suffering from the disorder. Those persons with bipolar disorder suffer through extreme highs and lows in a cyclic fashion. You may have heard that bipolar disorder affects mostly adults, but these days, many children and adolescents are being diagnosed with the disorder. If one or both parents have bipolar disorder, the chances are greater that their children will develop it, and a family history of drug or alcohol abuse may also be associated with bipolar disorder in adolescents. Manic (high) symptoms include the teen being either unusually happy or silly or very irritable, angry, agitated or aggressive, unrealistic feelings about abilities or that he or she has special powers, having an extraordinary level of energy and the ability to function with little or no sleep, and taking part in high-risk behaviors, such as abusing alcohol and drugs, reckless driving, or sexual promiscuity.

Depressive (low) symptoms include frequent crying, sadness that doesn't go away, irritability, not being able to enjoy favorite activities, and major changes in eating or sleeping patterns, such as oversleeping or overeating.

There are more signs to be on the alert for, but if you are concerned that your child may have an emotional or behavioral problem, seek the advice of a mental health professional immediately.

Deborah Clark Ebel is the author of The Forgotten Future: Adolescents in Crisis, due out in early
March. Visit the author's website at for more information.

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