Mental health and teens: Know the signs


WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Most parents will tell you raising kids is tough, regardless of their age, but as children grow into teens and young adults, parents are often faced with new concerns. Is their child acting like a typical teen or is there something deeper, and are they potentially showing signs of mental illness?

One in five teens battle mental health issues, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and almost half showed the first signs by the time they turned 14. Early detection can eliminate years of pain and suffering. But how do parents know when it’s time to get help? During Mental Health Awareness Month, we went to the experts to find out.

Jeanni Strait has spent almost three decades helping her children in their fight with mental illness. She’s speaking openly to bring awareness to the issue and help eliminate the stigma her family’s faced in society.

The Mental Health Association (MHA) of South Central Kansas is a comfortable place for Jeanni and her two adopted sons.

“Without the MHA, I do not know where we’d be,” she admitted.

Her relationship with the MHA dates back to the early nineties when her oldest son, William, first started showing signs that something was wrong.

“Everybody tells you oh it’s a boy, he’s just a boy, he’s just being a boy,” she recalled, “but he was violent, he was very violent.”

He was just six at the time, and Jeanni admits it would be years before they took a more aggressive approach to William’s treatment. The reason? She felt like she was failing as a parent.

“There was a time when I felt extremely guilt ridden.”

Doctors eventually diagnosed William with severe ADHD, conduct disorder and schizophrenia. Even with medication and treatment, he’s never been able to escape their impact. At one point, he spent two years in prison for a violent offense.

“Between 16 and I want to say 25, he had a really hard time kind of adjusting into adulthood,” she said. “He felt like there was no place for him.”

William’s severe and persistent mental illness represents an extreme case. The problem is that age range creates new challenges for most young adults.

“It’s a first for everything,” psychologist Molly Allen told us.

Dr. Allen says that’s what makes this tough both for parents and therapists. Teens’ bodies are changing, the world around them is changing and they’re trying to manage a new set of responsibilities while still dealing with their parents’ guidelines.

“By nature, they’re wired to be emotional, so it feels like you’re on an amusement park ride with them every day.”

But what constitutes a red flag?

She tells parents not to look for a specific incident, but rather a pattern of behavior that lasts weeks, not days.

“Not showering, eating, not coming out of their room, given up activities they used to enjoy,” she suggested. “If that’s going on, it might be time to take a look at depression.”

And be persistent. Kids will typically dismiss their parents’ initial concerns. They may be embarrassed to admit they’re feeling depressed, anxious or confused.

“When they start having that gut feeling that something’s not right, you’re pretty on target,” said Miquetta White, a therapist and case manager with the Mental Health Association.

She says parents almost always have to take the lead when it comes to getting their kids help, but that also means getting beyond their own reservations.

“I’m not here to make reports on you, although those things happen; that’s not our goal,” she assured us. “Our goal is to help you and your kids be successful.”

“Sometimes your kids are going to go kicking and screaming, but you’re their parent,” Jeanni told us. “Sometimes they don’t want to eat their vegetables, but you make them do that, too.”

That’s her experience talking.

She adopted William’s two sons, and when both showed their own warning signs, she immediately sought help. They’re already learning coping skills to better manage their emotions, and Jeanni’s learned to treat mental health the same way we treat physical well-being.

“Without these tools, it’s like trying to live through diabetes without insulin,” she said.

“If it really is a serious mental illness, the sooner you start treatment,” Dr. Allen said, “perhaps the more impact you can have on having a better outcome.”

Sometimes, Dr. Allen can reassure parents their kids are just behaving like average teens. An impartial therapist may simply provide that peace of mind. But other times, it’s the first step in improving their mental health and providing a better path for the future.

“If it is teenage angst, you have nothing to lose,” Jeanni said, “but if it is something deeper, you have everything to gain.”

Everyone we interviewed for this story says society is making progress when it comes to talking about mental health, but it’s important to keep moving the conversation forward. That’s the reason Jeanni insisted on talking so openly about their story. NAMI has a great content sharing website called OK to Talk to help create a community for teens and young adults dealing with mental illness.

But if you or someone you know needs immediate help — don’t hesitate — call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

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