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 “acting out” conditions that can include extremely defiant behavior.[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 who need mental health services receive them.[5]

Mental Health Disorders

Approximately one out of five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder,[6] and one in four shows at least mild symptoms of depression.[7] 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.[8],[9] Mental health disorders can disrupt school performance, harm relationships, and lead to suicide (the third leading cause of death among adolescents).[10] Unfortunately, an ongoing stigma regarding mental health disorders inhibits some adolescents and their families from seeking help.  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 who need mental health care receive treatment. [11]   A social stigma continues to surround mental health disorders, and mental health care is frequently difficult to access.  Today, more than one in 10 adolescents lacks insurance[12] and, when they are covered, the amount of mental health services they can receive is often limited.[13] 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. [14]

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.[15],[16] A number of factors promote resilience in adolescents—among the most important are caring relationships with adults and an easy-going disposition.[17] Adolescents themselves can use a number of strategies, including exercising regularly, to reduce stress and promote resilience.[18] 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.[19],[20]


[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 February 16, 2011, from http://nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_878.pdf
[4] Grisso, T. (2008). Adolescent offenders with mental disorders. Future of Children, 18(2), 143-164.
[5] Knopf, D. K., Park, J., & Mulye, T. P. (2008). The mental health of adolescents: A national profile, 2008 Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://nahic.ucsf.edu/downloads/MentalHealthBrief.pdf
[6] Schwarz, S. W. (2009). Adolescent mental health in the United States: Facts for Policymakers Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_878.pdf
[7] Child Trends. (2010). Child Trends Databank: Adolescents who feel sad or hopeless. Retrieved February 15, 2011, from http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/alphalist?q=node/126
[8] Burland, J. (2001). Parents and teachers as allies: Recognizing early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents. Arlington, VA: National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
[9] American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2008). The depressed child. Facts for Families No. 4. Depression and high school students. Retrieved February 15, 2011, from http://www.aacap.org/galleries/FactsForFamilies/04_the_depressed_child.pdf
[10] Schwarz, S. W. (2009). Adolescent mental health in the United States: Facts for Policymakers Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_878.pdf
[11] Knopf, D. K., Park, J., & Mulye, T. P. (2008). The mental health of adolescents: A national profile, 2008 Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://nahic.ucsf.edu/downloads/MentalHealthBrief.pdf
[12] National Institute for Health Care Management. (2009). Strategies to support the integration of mental health into pediatric primary care. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://nihcm.org/pdf/PediatricMH-FINAL.pdf
[13] Schwarz, S. W. (2009). Adolescent mental health in the United States: Facts for Policymakers Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_878.pdf
[14] National Institute for Health Care Management. (2009). Strategies to support the integration of mental health into pediatric primary care. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://nihcm.org/pdf/PediatricMH-FINAL.pdf
[15] Werner, E. E. (1995). Resilience in development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(3), 81-85
[16] Steinberg, L. (2005). Adolescence. 7th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill. 
[17] Masten, A. S., & Coatsworth, J. D. (1998). The development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments: Lessons from research on successful children. American Psychologist, 53(2), 205-220
[18] American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2006). Facts for families: Helping teenagers with stress. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://www.aacap.org/galleries/FactsForFamilies/66_helping_teenagers_with_stress.pdf
[19] 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
[20] 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 June 1, 2011, from http://www.lpfch.org/sel/casel-fullreport.pdf

Last updated: April 19, 2014