Teens and Mental Health: What Adults Need to Know


Barbara Green

Barbara J. Green, PhD, Youth Health Connection Medical Director

For teenagers, the beginning of a new school year can be a particularly stressful time. Teens face pressure to keep up with their studies and any extracurricular activities, maintain active social lives, and fit in with their peers. All of these stressors have only been amplified by social media as well.

When you consider that some teens are also faced with life-altering decisions, like where to go to college or what they want to do in their post-school lives, it’s no surprise that many of today’s teens feel overwhelmed or helpless on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, these feelings can lead to increased levels of anxiety, which can in turn become contributing factors toward suicidal ideation. Statistics show that the suicide rate among teens has skyrocketed over the past decade; stress and societal pressures have undoubtedly played a part in that increase.

We must be more proactive in addressing the mental health of our young people, including erasing the stigma that surrounds mental health struggles. Recently, I participated in a Facebook Live as part of our partnership with One Healthy Boston.

Our talk focused on warning signs and preventive measures when it comes to teen suicide, and the discussion sparked plenty of valuable information for parents of teenagers.

Know the warning signs of depression

The warning signs really break down into three categories: behavioral changes, emotional changes, and physical changes. Those three categories should then be judged on severity, intensity, duration, and impact on function.

If we take the category of behavioral changes, are there changes in academic performance? Have grades dropped? Have they lost interest in their activities? Are they someone who really loved being on the dance team but suddenly decided they were no longer interested in dance?

The same analysis can be done for the other two categories. Emotionally, do we see changes in terms of acting out? Do we see an increase in substance use?

Physically, do we see changes in appetite, like loss of appetite or significant weight gain? Do we see changes in sleep patterns, whether it’s difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or seemingly being bitten by the sleep bug and sleeping constantly?

Again, we must understand any of these signs on a spectrum: teens get frustrated, we all get frustrated.

However, there’s a difference between the transient experience of it and the severity, duration, and impact on function of clinical anger or depression.

This makes it crucial to do our best to really get to know our teens: what does “normal” look like behaviorally, physically, and emotionally? The goal is to know your teen well enough to notice when things are changing.

Additionally, many mental health issues first emerge during the teen years. As the teen body and mind mature, depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges can appear for the first time. If you are in-tune with how your teens behave normally, it makes it that much easier to spot when something has changed, allowing you to proactively offer help.

The role parents play in the mental health of their teens

Parents are very powerful influences in teens’ lives.

I often have parents say that their teens don’t listen to them — I always come back with “yes, they do.” They do listen, and they’re also watching.

It’s important for parents to know that they’re role models for their teens. With that in mind, parents should look inwardly and ask themselves some questions:

  • How do I handle sadness?
  • How do I handle my own stress —is it talked about openly or ignored?
  • Do I have a lifestyle that includes good sleep habits, healthy nutrition, and positive relationships?


Your teens are going to emulate the way you handle stress, sadness, and other emotions. It’s important for parents to handle those emotions in an open, honest way, as that will encourage teens to do the same.

How to talk to your teens about suicide

First, let’s dispel a myth: talking about suicide does not encourage thoughts of suicide. This is an essential myth to debunk. It’s actually quite the opposite: talking about how someone is feeling or having conversations about mental health issues are the kinds of things we want people to do.

These things let a teen know that we’re observing, we care, and there is help.

When it comes to actual conversations, we need to talk with teens carefully and we need to be age appropriate in how we talk to them. Part of the conversation should focus on the need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health by increasing the conversation and opening the dialogue.

We can start with “people feel sad sometimes, but there’s a difference between feeling sad and being depressed.” We want to encourage our teens to reach out to us as trusted adults if they feel that they are in need.

Due to some recent high-profile suicides, more young people are being exposed to it. We have kids seeing a story on the news and wondering why a celebrity took his or her life. We need to say that we may not know the specific answer, but we know there are things that can help people feel better and live better.

By openly and honestly discussing emotions and stressors with your teens, you can help increase the likelihood that they come to you as a trusted adult in a time of need.


If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. To learn more about how to get involved with Youth Health Connection, please call Jean at 781-624-7423.