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Adolescence is a critical stage of development where young people are trying to find their place in the world. The transition from childhood to adulthood can be fraught with challenges, and many adolescents struggle with identity and mental health issues.
According to an NHS survey, young people have a higher mental need than ever, with 1 in 6 people aged 5 to 16 experiencing a mental health problem in 2020 – a significant jump from 1 in 9 three years prior.
Understanding and destigmatising mental health is key to encouraging those affected by poor mental health to access and engage with support. Adults involved in the lives of these young people, including parents, carers, teachers and medical professionals, need to understand the warning signs of poor mental health and how to provide effective support.
The problem of adolescent mental health requires a holistic and collaborative approach. As a society, we can all play a fundamental role in reducing stigma and improving outcomes for today’s youth by listening, promoting empathy and increasing awareness.
Understanding adolescent mental health
Adolescence is a critical period of growth and development, marked by significant physical, emotional and hormonal changes. During this time, young people are trying to navigate the world as they emerge from childhood and may face certain challenges and vulnerabilities that can impact their mental health.
Statistics show that mental health disorders are on the rise among teenagers, with approximately 1 in 5 adolescents experiencing a mental health issue. Early intervention and support are crucial in helping young people to overcome these issues.
Recognising and addressing the signs of a young person suffering from mental health problems is key to providing better outcomes and preventing more serious problems in the future.
Children and young people may encounter a number of different mental health issues, developmental disorders or psychiatric conditions. These include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Personality disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Eating disorders
As young people begin to go through adolescence and try to understand what their place in the world is, they may also suffer crises or confusion relating to their gender identity or sexuality.
Poor adolescent mental health often coexists alongside other risk factors such as:
- Drug and alcohol misuse
- Underachieving in education
- Criminal activity
- Irresponsible sexual behaviour
Adolescents with poor mental health may also be at an increased risk from exploitation, eating disorders, suicide and self-harm.
To ensure that our young people are given the opportunities that they deserve, we must ensure that adequate mental health support is available. This begins with removing the stigma around talking about mental health across the board.
Stigma, in the context of mental health, refers to the negative attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes that society holds about individuals with mental health disorders. Research by the charity Mind found that 2 in 3 young people reported that they felt they had experienced discrimination and/or stigma at some point when reaching out for help or accessing mental health support.
Stigma can manifest in various forms, including:
- Discrimination (including racism, homophobia, sexism)
This negativity can significantly impact an adolescent’s willingness to seek help for their mental health issues, as they may fear judgement, ridicule or being ‘labelled’. They may also worry that speaking out may lead to them being further isolated.
The consequences of stigma
Stigma surrounding mental health can have severe, negative consequences for adolescents. It can lead to delayed treatment, social isolation/loneliness, internalising their feelings and exacerbation of their mental health issues.
Moreover, the long-term effects of untreated mental health issues can impact academic performance, social relationships and emotional well-being.
Young people who do not feel safe and supported are unlikely to want to access support and may start to foster distrust for adults and authority figures. This can lead to a negative cycle of looking for help in the wrong places, such as in gangs, drugs, alcohol etc.
Factors contributing to stigma
Several factors contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health in the adolescent community. These factors include societal, cultural and familial influences, as well as the media’s portrayal of mental health issues. It is essential to address and challenge these factors to reduce stigma and promote mental health awareness.
Additionally, those who are also members of marginalised communities may suffer additional consequences of mental health stigma as they may already feel rejected by society.
Young people in this situation may face additional challenges such as:
- Poverty – young people in the lowest income bracket are 4.5 times more likely to experience severe mental health problems than those in the highest income bracket (Gutman, L.M., Joshi, H., Parsonage, M. and School, I., 2015).
- Lack of parental involvement – according to data collected by SAGE, children of single parents may develop negative feelings about themselves and are at a higher risk of self-harm.
- Limited access to resources – only a little over a third of children with a diagnosable mental health condition get access to care and treatment by the NHS.
- Inadequate support network – around half of young people may have experienced at least one traumatic event or adverse childhood experience.
The role of social media
Social media can have a significant influence on young people and is at the centre of many of their lives. While social media can be a powerful tool for connecting with others, sharing experiences and accessing support, it also has a dark side.
Social media tools and online communication tools, including Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, X and Snapchat, can contribute negatively to adolescent mental health.
The use of social media by young people comes with several risk factors, such as:
- Online bullying and harassment – cyberbullying can lead to increased feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety. This can both trigger and worsen mental health issues in young people.
- Unrealistic expectations – social media often presents an idealised and fake version of people’s lives. This can lead to people comparing their lives to what they perceive the lives of others to be and can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy.
- Body image – photos on social media are increasingly being edited and filtered to appear ‘perfect’ and can make young people, in particular girls, feel insecure about their bodies and looks.
- Misinformation and fake news – increasingly, social media is being used to deliberately mislead others. Misinformation can help spread negative stereotypes about mental health, further increasing stigma and leading to ridicule.
To try to counteract the negative impacts social media can have, schools and families need to work together to promote:
- Responsible social media use
- Open conversations about cyberbullying and its impacts
- Positive body image
- The importance of fact-checking and not blindly believing or sharing information just because it is online
- Taking breaks from social media
Incorporating mental health education and digital literacy in schools is essential for promoting mental well-being and reducing stigma among adolescents. Parents should be included in the conversation as well as they may not fully understand the impact that the digital world can have on their children.
To improve engagement, schools should consider a creative approach to tackling these difficult topics. This could be achieved through digital literacy workshops, participation in competitions (such as designing posters or campaigns) and sending regular updates home via email, school website or newsletter.
Changing the narrative
To combat stigma and promote mental health awareness, it is crucial to change the narrative surrounding mental health in the adolescent community.
Strategies and initiatives aimed at reducing stigma include:
- Open conversations – children react well to honesty and dialogue that is on their level and to stories they can relate to in some way.
- Education – educators need to be engaged. This could include lessons about mental health and stigma being built into the existing curriculum at school, drop-ins at break times or the sharing of online resources via the school newsletter.
- Anti-stigma campaigns – campaigns can be simple or more complex; from wearing yellow to school to giving out pin badges to ongoing campaigns shared online and via social media, featuring statistics, true stories and familiar faces.
- Adults speaking out about their own mental health struggles – adults need to lead by example to improve outcomes for young people.
Mental health intervention needs to be effective and proportional and the support provided needs to be ongoing.
Currently, mental health resources are overwhelmed and young people can wait too long to get the support they need. It is important that frameworks for support are fit for purpose: there is little point in changing the narrative and encouraging young people to get help if that help is inconsistent, inaccessible or unsuitable.
Promoting mental health awareness
Schools, parents and communities play a vital role in promoting mental health awareness among adolescents. Peer support and mentoring programmes can also be effective in fostering understanding and empathy for those struggling with mental health issues.
Promotional activities might look like:
- Celebrity anti-stigma campaigns
- Using social media to spread positive messages and awareness #bekind
- A holistic approach (where responsibility is not placed on one service and involves collaboration between schools, parents, professionals, youth groups, etc.)
- Normalising mental health by speaking openly and honestly
Many young people react better to getting advice from people who are closer to their age. Peer-to-peer support and mentoring programmes can be beneficial for young people who need mental health help.
Today’s young people are digital natives and as such may feel more comfortable accessing mental health help using online resources.
This includes charity websites such as:
Online therapists such as BetterHelp offer qualified therapy that is conducted 100% online and can be accessed anywhere. It can be an affordable option in comparison with private counselling.
Although it is important to emphasise that there are supportive, safe spaces for adolescents to discuss their mental health, it is important not to neglect the role of the individual in making positive change. Young people need to be empowered and understand that they have their own agency.
As, such, young people should be encouraged to take good care of themselves, including:
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet that is not full of junk foods, processed foods or sugar.
- Getting regular exercise which can boost endorphins and help with aggression and low mood.
- Attending a supportive school that has a zero-tolerance approach to bullying.
- Being part of a (mostly) happy family, even if this is not a traditional family; it could be a foster family, grandparents or even a friendship group. Family dynamics can be very tough and sometimes we have to build our own support networks.
- Taking part in extracurricular activities to give them a routine and something positive to focus on.
Encouraging help-seeking behaviour
Encouraging adolescents to seek help for their mental health issues is crucial in addressing stigma and promoting overall well-being.
Guidance on how to encourage help-seeking behaviour includes openly discussing the various support options that are available.
These may include:
- Online resources
- Support groups
- School pastoral team
- Family support
Promoting open communication and providing a safe and supportive environment can make a significant difference in an adolescent’s willingness to seek help for their mental health struggles. As a society, we all need to work together to try to overcome the stigma that still surrounds mental health.
Once a young person has found the strength to seek help with their mental health, a multidisciplinary approach is often the most effective type of intervention. This may involve a mixture of:
- Encouraging self-care
- Promoting positive coping strategies such as mindfulness, tapping, journaling, channelling emotions into art or music
Where relationships have not completely broken down, it is usually helpful to involve the parents (or whole family) and encourage them to participate in treatment, as a young person’s struggles often have an impact that extends far beyond the individual.
A positive attitude towards adolescent mental health is a critical aspect of any young person’s overall well-being. It is vital that we learn to recognise and address the various challenges that can arise during this complex stage of life.
Normalising speaking out, asking for help and accepting support are also key to ensuring positive outcomes.
Once a child does speak out, we can help by:
- Listening without judgement
- Validating their feelings and concerns
- Providing easy access to resources and support services
- Encouraging them to use online resources responsibly
- Signposting them to the best help (doctor, counsellor, Head of Pastoral, etc.)
The coping strategies and habits that adolescents develop during this critical developmental period can have a lasting impact on their mental health and well-being in later life.
By focusing on building positive mental health habits and strategies from an early age, parents, teachers and mental health professionals will empower adolescents to better navigate life’s many challenges and help them build resilience for the long term. Whilst we help children build resilience and learn vital coping strategies, investing in services is also key, so that young people are able to access the right help and resources as soon as they need them.