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Common Mental Health Disorders in Adolescence

Common mental health disorders in adolescence include those related to anxiety, mood, attention deficit-hyperactivity, and eating disorders.1,2

Anxiety disorders 

  • Characterized by feelings of excessive uneasiness, worry, and fear
  • Occur in approximately 25 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds3
  • Examples include generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias

Mood disorders

  • Characterized by extreme lows and highs in mood
  • Occur in approximately 14 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds4
  • Examples include major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder, and bipolar disorder

Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Characterized by continuing inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with daily functioning or development
  • Occurs in approximately 9 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds5

Eating disorders 

  • Characterized by extreme and abnormal eating behaviors, such as insufficient or excessive eating 
  • Occur in almost three percent of 13- to 18-year-olds6
  • Examples include anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder

Co-occurring Disorders

When a person has a mental health and substance use disorder at the same time, they have co-occurring disorders. Compared to the general population, people with mental health disorders are more likely to experience a substance use disorder, repeatedly use alcohol and/or drugs to the point of impairment, and neglect major responsibilities at home, work, or school.7 Youth who have experienced a major depressive episode are twice as likely to start using alcohol or an illicit drug. A 2010 study found that more than 29 percent of youth who started using alcohol within the past year did so after a major depressive episode compared to only 14.5 percent of youth who had not experienced a major depressive episode. The same pattern also occurred with the use of illicit drugs.8

Substance use shares many characteristics with mental illness. Prevention efforts and early treatment are beneficial for people who are at risk for both substance use and mental health disorders.9 A recent U.S. Surgeon General’s report highlights the scope of substance use (including alcohol) and its negative health impacts for individuals and the nation. Because mental health and substance use disorders are complicated and involve biological, psychological, and social elements, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) supports an integrated treatment approach to co-occurring disorders. This approach allows practitioners to comprehensively address symptoms and underlying causes, which often lowers the cost of treatment and leads to better outcomes.

Substance use is not the only disorder that occurs at the same time as mental health disorders. Different mental health disorders can occur together (like anxiety and depression) or mental health disorders can overlap with physical health disorders (like depression and diabetes).10 Symptoms of mental health disorders can also be similar to other conditions. For example, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a group of developmental disorders often characterized by impairments in the ability to communicate and interact with others. ASD includes a wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability. These disorders occur in about 1.5 percent of children and often co-occur with disorders such as depression, anxiety, and sensory integration disorder.11

Current Research

Much of the current research on mental health is focused on addressing: the role of trauma and toxic stress in the development of mental health disorders; factors that promote resilience in the face of challenges; and interventions that include therapeutic or preventive approaches, such as mindfulness meditation.12

The federally-funded Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study was launched in 2016, and will follow the biological and behavioral development of more than 10,000 children from ages 9-10 through adolescence and into early adulthood. Researchers will use advanced brain imaging, interviews, and behavioral testing to examine how childhood experiences affect a child’s changing biology and vice versa. The interaction between childhood activities and biology could affect brain development and—ultimately—social, behavioral, academic, health, and other outcomes.13

Other researchers are interested in understanding the role of medication to treat mental health conditions. Most children who receive outpatient care for mental health see their primary care provider, rather than a specialist, such as a psychiatrist. Primary care providers are more likely than specialists to prescribe medication.14 Treating a mental illness with medication sometimes requires going through several trials before settling on the most effective medication or combination of medications for the individual. Identifying the best treatment can be stressful and expensive for families. Due to the importance of identifying the best treatments early, the NIMH Mental Health Services Research Committee is funding evaluations of the effectiveness of mental health services and treatments, the use of medication to treat mental illness, service needs for specific populations or for those with co-occurring disorders, and innovative service delivery models.15


1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Any Disorder Among Children. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-disorder-among-children.shtml
2 Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs. (n.d.). Prevalance. Retrieved Feburary 21, 2017, from http://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/prevalance-mental-health-disorders-among-youth
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Insitute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Any Anxiety Disorder Among Children. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-children.shtml
4 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Any Mood Disorder in Children. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mood-disorder-in-children.shtml
5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Insitute of Mental Health (n.d.). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Among Children. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-among-children.shtml
6 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Eating Disorders Among Children. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/eating-disorders-among-children.shtml
7 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Substance Use. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from https://www.samhsa.gov/disorders/substance-use
8 Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs. (n.d.). Co-occuring Disorders. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/co-occurring
9Facing addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s report on alcohol, drugs, and health. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General. Retrieved 26 October, 2016, from https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/
10 Druss, B. G., Walker, E. (2011). Mental Disorders and Medical Comorbidity. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from: http://www.integration.samhsa.gov/workforce/mental_disorders_and_medical_comorbidity.pdf
11 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml
12 Sibinga, E. M., Webb, L., Ghazarian, S. R., & Ellen, J. M. (2016). School-based mindfulness instruction: an RCT. Pediatrics, 137(1).
13 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Recruitment Begins for Landmark Study of Adolescent Brain Development. Retrieved October 26th, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2016/recruitment-begins-for-landmark-study-of-adolescent-brain-development.shtml
14 Anderson, E., Chen, M. I., Perrin, J. M., & Van Cleave, J. (2015). Outpatient visits and medication prescribing for U.S. children with mental health conditions. Pediatrics, online October 12, 2015.
15 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Mental Health Services Committee (SERV). Retrieved December 28, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/funding/grant-writing-and-application-process/mental-health-services-research-committee-serv.shtml
Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on April 28, 2017