Mental Health

Important mental health habits—including coping, resilience and good judgment—help adolescents to achieve overall wellbeing and set the stage for positive mental health in adulthood.[1],[2] Although mood swings are common during adolescence, approximately one in five adolescents has a diagnosable mental disorder, such as depression and/or anxiety disorders.[3] Friends and family can watch for warning signs of mental disorders and urge young people to get help. Effective treatments exist and may involve a combination of psychotherapy and medication.[4]  Unfortunately, less than half of adolescents with psychiatric disorders received any kind of treatment in the last year.[5]

Mental Health Disorders

Approximately one out of five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder,[3] and more than one in four shows symptoms of depression.[6] Warning signs aren’t always obvious, but more common symptoms include persistent irritability, anger, or social withdrawal, as well as major changes in appetite or sleep.[7] Mental health disorders can disrupt school performance, harm relationships, and lead to suicide (the third leading cause of death among adolescents).[3] Unfortunately, an ongoing stigma regarding mental health disorders inhibits some adolescents and their families from seeking help.[8]  Effective treatments for mental health disorders, especially if they begin soon after symptoms appear, can help reduce its impact on an adolescent’s life.

Access to Mental Health Care

Less than half of the adolescents with psychiatric disorders received any kind of treatment in the past year.[5] A social stigma continues to surround mental health disorders, and mental health care is frequently difficult to access. In 2012, almost 9 percent of adolescents lacked health insurance,[9] and when they are covered, the amount of mental health services they can receive is often limited.[3] Initially identifying a mental health disorder is also challenging—issues are often first identified at school. Researchers have documented a number of disparities in access. Among adolescents, those that are homeless; served by state child welfare and juvenile justice systems; and are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender are often the least likely to receive services. [10],[11],[12]

Positive Mental Health: Resilience

"Resilient" adolescents are those who have managed to cope effectively, even in the face of stress and other difficult circumstances, and are poised to enter adulthood with a good chance of positive mental health.[13],[12] A number of factors promote resilience in adolescents—among the most important are caring relationships with adults and an easy-going disposition.[14] Adolescents themselves can use a number of strategies, including exercising regularly, to reduce stress and promote resilience.[15] Schools and communities are also recognizing the importance of resilience and general “emotional intelligence” in adolescents’ lives—a growing number of courses and community programs focus on adolescents’ social-emotional learning and coping skills.[16],[17]


[1] Werner, E. E. (1995). Resilience in development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(3), 81-85
[2] Steinberg, L. (2005). Adolescence. 7th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.
[3] Schwarz, S. W. (2009). Adolescent mental health in the United States: Facts for Policymakers Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_878.pdf
[4] National Institute of Mental Health (N.D.). Psychotherapies.  Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/psychotherapies/index.shtml
[5] Costello, E. J., He, J. P., Sampson, N. A., Kessler, R. C., & Merikangas, K. R. (2013). Services for adolescents with psychiatric disorders: 12-month data from the National Comorbidity Survey–Adolescent. Psychiatric Services, 65(3), 459.
[6] Child Trends. (2012). Child Trends Databank: Adolescents who feel sad or hopeless. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=adolescents-who-felt-sad-or-hopeless
[7] Mental Health America. (2013). Depression in Teens. Retrieved July 3, 2014 from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/depression-teens
[8] Pinto, H., R., Logsdon, M.C., Burant, C. (2012). Psychometric evaluation of the revised attribution questionnaire to measure mental illness stigma in adolescents. Journal of Nursing Measurement, 20(1), 47-58.
[9] Bloom B., Jones L.I., Freeman G. (2013) Summary health statistics for U.S. children: National Health Interview Survey, 2012. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 10(258).  Retrieved July 3, 2014 from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_258.pdf
[10] Mustanski, B. S., Garofalo, R., & Emerson, E. M. (2010). Mental health disorders, psychological distress, and suicidality in a diverse sample of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. American Journal of Public Health, 100(12), 2426-2432.
[11] Morrow, S., & Howell, E. (2010). State mental health systems for children. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
[12] United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. (2010). Opening doors: Federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Executive Summary. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.ich.gov/PDF/OpeningDoors_2010_FSPPreventEndHomeless.pdf;
[13] Fergus, S., Zimmerman, M. (2005). Adolescent resilience: A framework for understanding healthy development. Annual Review of Public Health, 26, 399-419.
[14] Carr, A. (Ed.). (2011). Positive Psychology: The science of happiness and human strengths (Second ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
[15] American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2006). Facts for families: Helping teenagers with stress. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.aacap.org/App_Themes/AACAP/docs/facts_for_families/66_helping_teenagers_with_stress.pd
[16] Snyder, F. J., Flay, B. R., Vucinich, S., Acock, A., Washburn, I. J., Beets, M. W., et al. (2010). Impact of a social-emotional and character development program on school-level indicators of academic achievement, absenteeism, and disciplinary outcomes: A matched-pair, cluster randomized, controlled trial. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 3(1), 26-55
[17] Payton, J., Weissberg, R. P., Durlak, J. A., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., Schellinger, K. B., et al. (2008). The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.lpfch.org/sel/casel-fullreport.pdf
Last updated: July 25, 2014