Five signs your teen is struggling with their mental health
Our teenage years are meant to be a care-free and exciting, filled with self-discovery and exploration that prepares us emotionally for pending adulthood. But, as most of us can easily recall, the reality of being a teenager is rarely this simple.
As young people go through the physical, emotional and social changes that are expected in their teens, they’re vulnerable to mental health problems. In fact, 70% of people with a mental illness begin experiencing symptoms before age 18, and young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group .
As a parent or guardian, you are in an excellent position to start a dialogue with your teenage kids about their mental health. But, it can be tricky to differentiate between typical teenage moodiness and a mental health issue. Continue reading for five signs your child might be struggling with their mental health and some tips on what to do next.
Teen and youth mental health in Canada
Common mental health issues among youth include:
- Emotional disorders: Includes depression, anxiety, excessive irritability, frustration or anger, unexpected emotional outbursts, etc. Depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents aged 15 to 19 globally .
- Eating disorders: Including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. They typically begin in adolescence or young adulthood and affect women ten times more than men [3, 4].
- Suicide and self harm: Canada has the third-highest youth suicide rate in the industrialized world . Canadian youth aged 15-24 have a higher risk of suicide than the general population . Risk factors include harmful use of alcohol, depression, stigma, and barriers to healthcare.
How can I tell if my teen is struggling with their mental health?
1. They’re falling behind in school
Mental illness can negatively impact concentration, motivation, sleep and energy level — all of which can make focusing on school pretty difficult. Your child doesn’t have to have perfect grades, but a drop in marks might be a red flag for concurrent mental health disorders. As well, a 2021 study in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology found that mental health problems in early childhood and adolescence increase the risk for poor academic performance.
Pressure to succeed academically, test anxiety, bullying at school, poor sleep, poor nutrition and more can all negatively impact a student’s mental wellness and keep them from excelling. You might also notice your child skipping class or not handing in assignments.
2. They’ve experienced unexplained weight loss/weight gain
If a teenager is rapidly losing or gaining weight, they could be struggling mentally. When experiencing stress or anxiety, teenagers might turn to extreme dieting or overeating regain a sense of control over their lives or conform to societal beauty standards.
Anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are just a few additional mental health diagnoses that frequently co-occur with eating disorders .
3. They’re withdrawing socially and losing interest in their hobbies
While it is normal to lose interest in childhood hobbies as we age, an abrupt avoidance of activities that once brought joy can be a sign of depression. Depression is common across all age groups but can present differently in teens than adults. Some common symptoms include feelings of sadness or crying spells with no apparent cause, excessive anger or frustration, trouble concentrating, weight loss/gain, or thoughts about self-harm and suicide.
4. They’re using drugs or alcohol frequently
Many people start to experiment with drugs, alcohol or tobacco in their teens. According to Statistics Canada, 60 per cent of illicit drug users in Canada are between 15 and 24. The illicit market aside, youth are also vulnerable to prescription drug addiction. For example, in 2019, CAMH found that 11 per cent of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 reported taking an opioid pain reliever (i.e. Tylenol 3, Percocet etc.) that was not prescribed to them. The same study found that high school students were using e-cigarettes (vapes) significantly more often than years before .
Many people who have an addiction also develop other mental illnesses, and vice versa. With the right treatment program, these co-occurring disorders can be addressed together.
5. Their sleeping patterns have changed dramatically
Mood and sleep are closely linked. If your teen is struggling with stress and/or anxiety, for example, it can be harder for them to get the amount of rest they need to properly regulate their emotions. According to Harvard Medical School,15 to 20 percent of people diagnosed with insomnia will develop major depression, and even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood .
There are plenty of reasons your child’s sleep schedule might change in high school, but consistent exhaustion is detrimental to their physical and mental health.
What should I do to help my child struggling with mental health?
If you suspect your teen might be struggling with a mental illness or addiction, the first step is initiating a conversation from a place of compassion and understanding. Here are some tips to prepare:
1. Learn and listen
There is plenty of misunderstanding and stigma attached to mental illness and addiction; this creates barriers to accessing proper treatment. If you know or suspect that your teen is struggling, educate yourself on their symptoms or condition to demonstrate how much you care. Some great resources include the Canadian Mental Health Association, Children’s Mental Health Ontario, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and Youth Mental Health Canada. You can also check out EHN Online’s blogs on enabling a loved one’s addiction or speaking to a loved one about their addiction.
Approach a conversation with your teen from a place of empathy, not judgement or accusation. Find a private place to speak, address their emotions and concerns with compassion, and use your research to discuss possible solutions.
Avoid being confrontational or using a judgemental tone, as this could make your child feel guilty or ashamed. Remind your child that you are initiating this conversation because you care and want what’s best for them.
2. Take care of yourself
Mental health problems are extremely common, especially among young people, and are nothing to be ashamed of. Remember that talking about mental health should be as easy as talking about physical health.
As you’re helping your child through their mental health struggle, make sure you’re tending to your own health as well and have healthy habits in place to handle stress.
3. Look into treatment options
There are several treatment options and solutions to help better your teen’s mental health that are proven to be effective. A great place to start is talking to your family doctor so they can refer you to a mental health specialist if needed. Publicly-funded treatment options are available through your provincial healthcare system, but keep in mind that wait times can be significant.
If you’re interested in private services, try looking at directories on different professional college’s websites, such as The Ontario College for Psychologists or the Ontario College of Social Workers. Group and individual therapy, medication and stress management techniques have all been proven to help improve mental health. No two journeys to mental wellness are the same. Speaking to a professional can help determine the best course of action for you and your teen.
Finally, if your child is dealing with mild-to-moderate symptoms, a structured outpatient teen program is a great alternative to a residential program.
What does a structured outpatient program look like?
If you suspect your teen might be in need of mental health treatment, a structured, evidence-based outpatient program is an effective and affordable alternative to inpatient (residential) treatment. Virtual outpatient programs allow youth to continue living at home and participating in daily activities such as school, while connecting with like minded individuals and receiving the personalized care they deserve.
EHN Online’s Healthy Minds Comprehensive Teen Program is a nine-week program that helps youth aged 14-18 mend their mental health virtually. With flexible scheduling options, your child can receive the highest standard of mental health care and connect with other teens experiencing similar symptoms from the comfort of their own home. Research shows that outpatient therapy can be as effective as residential treatment,  and with EHN Online’s program being tailored specifically to teens, they’ll be able to stay engaged and practice coping skills and strategies in their daily lives.
Structured online treatment programs are a great option for people who have a mild-to-moderate case of mental illness or addiction, and need more support than counselling or medication alone can provide.
The Healthy Minds Comprehensive Teen Program can be accessed virtually across Canada.
Resources for Teens
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
- Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310 / Online chat: www.hopeforwellness.ca
- Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (24/7)
- For Quebec residents: 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553) (24/7)
EHN Online can help. Contact us to learn more about the Healthy Minds Comprehensive Teen Program.
 Government of Canada (2006). The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
 Pearson, Janz and Ali (2013). Health at a glance: Mental and substance use disorders in Canada. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X.
 Kessler RC, Angermeyer M, Anthony JC, et al. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders in the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative. World Psychiatry 2007; 6: 168–76
 Government of Canada. The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada, 2006. Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. Catalogue no.: HP5-19/2006E.
 American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 1995.
 Mental Health Commission of Canada (2013). Making the case for investing in mental health in Canada.
 Findlay L. Depression and suicidal ideation among Canadians aged 15 to 24. Health Rep. 2017 Jan 18;28(1):3-11. PMID: 28098916.
 Anxiety, Depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. (n.d.). The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Retrieved July 18, 2021, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/anxiety-depression-obsessive-compulsive-disorder
 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2020). Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Study, 1977–2019. https://www.camh.ca//-/media/files/pdf—osduhs/drugusereport_2019osduhs-pdf.pdf
 Breslau, N. et al., Sleep Disturbance and Psychiatric Disorders: A Longitudinal Epidemiological Study of Young Adults, Biological Psychiatry. Mar 1996; 39(6): 411–418.
 McCarty, D., Braude, L., Lyman, D. R., Dougherty, R. H., Daniels, A. S., Ghose, S. S., & Delphin-Rittmon, M. E. (2014). Substance abuse intensive outpatient programs: assessing the evidence. Psychiatric services (Washington, D.C.), 65(6), 718–726. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ps.201300249