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Adolescent Mental Health Basics

Most adolescents experience positive mental health, but one in five has a diagnosable mental health disorder.1 Problems with mental health often start early in life. In fact, half of all mental health problems begin by age 14.2 The good news is that promoting positive mental health can prevent some problems from starting. For young people who already have mental health disorders, early intervention and treatment can help lessen the impact on their lives.

Impact of Mental Health Problems in Adolescence

It is a normal part of development for teens to experience a wide range of emotions. It is typical, for instance, for teens to feel anxious about school or friendships, or to experience a period of depression following the death of a close friend or family member. Mental health disorders, however, are characterized by persistent symptoms that affect how a young person feels, thinks, and acts. Mental health disorders also can interfere with regular activities and daily functioning, such as relationships, schoolwork, sleeping, and eating.3

Depression is the most common mental health disorder, affecting nearly one in 11 adolescents and young adults each year. Adolescents who experience symptoms of depression most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks in the year are having a major depressive episode.5 The number of adolescents who experience major depressive episodes increased by nearly a third from 2005 to 2014.4

When left untreated, mental health disorders can lead to serious—even life-threatening—consequences. Depression, other mental health disorders, and substance abuse are major risk factors for suicide.8 Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds.6 As of 2013, children ages 10 to 14 are more likely to die from suicide than in a motor vehicle accident.7 Any concerns that family members or healthcare providers have about an adolescent’s mental health should be promptly addressed.


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 Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), 593-602. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/208678?resultclick=1
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Insitute of Mental Health. (2016). Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/child-and-adolescent-mental-health/index.shtml
4 Mojtabai, R., Olfson, M., & Han, B. (2016). National trends in the prevalence and treatment of depression in adolescents and young adults. Pediatrics, 138(6).
5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Depression. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml
6 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Suicide Prevention. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml
7 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016). QuickStats: Death rates for motor vehicle traffic injury, suicide, and homicide among children and adolescents aged 10-14 years — United States, 1999–2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 65(43). Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6543a8.htm?s_cid=mm6543a8_w
7 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Suicidal Behavior. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/suicidal-behavior/
Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on April 28, 2017