Mental Health: Our Troubled Teenagers

The last article I wrote on the issue of teenagers and their mental health was posted Thursday, September 10, 2009. The title is "Teenage Depression and Consequences."

The URL to the article is:

I find myself worried about the fact that there were no responses to the article and the problem of adolescent depression and suicide. Therefore, I am posting a follow up article in the hope of attracting attention to this crucial dilemma because, for many families, it is like the storm brewing as shown in the photo.

I was recently priveleged to give a presentation to a freshmen group of High School students on the topic of teenage stress, depression and suicide and how to get help. More than a presentation, the event became a rewarding and informative discussion of these problems. What shocked me and the staff that was present were the numbers of students who personally knew youngsters who engaged in such behaviors as: 1. Self cutting, 2. Anorexia and or Bulimia Nervosa, 3. Attempted Suicide. In addition, many were willing to publicly admit to transitory thoughts of suicide. My educated guess is that none of them would publicly admit to having more frequent suicidal thoughts.

In preparing for the presentation I did some research on teen depression and suicide and was startled by the results. Most of the statistics came from the National Institute of Mental Health. There, I learned that:


1. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States.

2. The first leading cause of death among teens is motor vehicle accidents.

3. The adolescent suicide death rate is approaching that of the adult death rate.

When you consider alcohol and drug abuse among these young people, the fact that they drive while intoxicated and can be impulsive when sober, it becomes clear that suicide and motor vehicle accidents are closely related with many of those auto deaths being suicidal in nature.

The adolescent stage of life has always been marked by emotional turmoil and difficulty. In reading Leo Tolstoy's great novel, War and Peace, I was impressed by the fact that one of the older teenage girls in the story, Natasha, displayed all of the angst we are discussing here, including a suicide attempt by swallowing poison. The story takes place in 1812. So, this is nothing new.

Parents and Teachers:

Perhaps, what is new about teenage vulnerability is that parents and teachers are more remote from these young people than in ages past. With both parents working, teachers having large classes and the transitory nature of our neighborhoods where people do not know one another very well, it is easier than ever for teenage turmoil to go unnoticed.

Well, it is time to notice. Too many young people are dying. Depression, Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse plague teens just as adults and are very treatable.

Yes, adolescents can have a Bipolar disorder. They can and do suffer Major Depression and they can and do become addicted to substances.

Parents, pay attention.

Teenagers, please go to your school psychologist, intervention specialist, or an adult you can trust, and discuss your feelings and problems. Help is available for teens and their families.

Your comments and questions are eagerly sought after from adults and teens because of the important nature of this topic.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

  • Cathy

    Well, my teens are raised and I spent a lot of time with them as my children were always important and I understood that they would be a big responsibility. I had the opportunity to work as a teacher's aide in the 90's and I realized how much the world for youth had changed. Nobody cared about anything other than putting in their time the kids, the teachers and the parents. I was told which kids to just let go because they didn't want to call the parents in because they were too threatening and caused trouble and many other had drug addicted parents! I worked for awhile in Alternative Education and here were, well, the wealthier children basically there because they lacked social skills and were starved for attention which working in that small environment, we were able to give them. One interesting thing was with the elementary students, one on each side of the "tracks". One had the wealthier children, a real pain in the butt to work at because the children would swear at you, spit and do things I wouldn't even put in words and the other side of the tracks which were children, mostly of Hispanic background and of lower income families generally with one parent at home and they were very good and obedient and loved to learn as they would beg me to work through recess with them so they could read aloud in the special reading class. Priorities are a problem. Too much emphasis is placed on the extra activities, dance, gymnastics, sports, so that the kid is basically never home with the parents and the parents are working off their tail to provide those extras in place of the time they could spend with the children. Just messed up. I was surprised that on the "community" of this website that there are so many younger people looking for answers to their problems. Just reminds of one of those nature shows where the turtle digs a hole, lays the eggs and runs off to the sea and forgets about them. If you are looking for answers, I don't have them.

  • keith k

    I am an adolescent chemical dependency counselor in Minnesota. The combination of mental health issues and substance abuse is so prevalent in our young people that I expect to find it (mental health issues) in almost every client I see. And yes, both must be dealt with at the same time. You are so right in saying that young people can have bipolar disorder, major depressibe disorders and anxiety, and this is not going to magically get better. I believe that communities need to desperately develop special peer groups based on treating both concurring disorders and thereby develop a positive social network for our young persons so afflicted. Thank you for the excellent article

    Keith W. Kleinke LADC

  • Dr.T

    Dr. Schwartz, It is really not a surprise that many seem to disregard the importance of adolescent mental health. Children and adolescents are the most overlooked and under-recognized group. This is probably one of the contributing factors to why so many teenagers are "troubled." As you already know, our juvenile justice system is overflowing with juveniles who suffer from mental health problems, have committed murders, remain in trouble despite deterrent community and social services, etc. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2009) "about 70 million Americans—1 in 4—are younger than 18, the age group commonly referred to as juveniles" of which "youth younger than age 15 accounted for more than one-forth (28%) of all juvenile arrests for Violent Crime." While I do agree with your statement about both parents working and teachers large classroom sizes and that being the reason for teenage mental health problems going unnoticed. I must also add that a lot of teachers are uninformed about mental health issues that aren't very salient. Parents aren't usually suspicious of adolescent depression and other mental health needs until the teenager does something out of character or loses an interest in life. Other parents refuse, as I witnessed during an undergrad clinical internship at a psychiatric hospital, to come to terms with their child's mental health needs. Their pride, their self-esteem, and their perception of their parenting-style/efficacy are threatened. Parents MUST pay attention. Children MUST speak with their parents or trusted adult about their psychological concerns. One of the most important barriers to children and adolescents seeking help is stigma. If high schools would speak more about decreasing stigma and increasing support of one another, more adolescents would probably seek help. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.

  • Anonymous-1

    I am haunted by the memory of my neighbors' 15 year old boy. I would see him walking to school. I had offered him a ride occasionally, but he wouldn't accept. His parents were strict about that.

    One day I saw him and he looked so depressed and hopeless to be facing another day at school. I debated saying something to him, but I didn't think he would open up, and I knew his mother wouldn't appreciate my interference.

    A few days later he killed himself. We heard that he had been severely bullied.

    Junior high and high school can be very rough places for kids.

    I wish someone had stopped what was happening or managed to help him. I so wish I had followed my gut and tried to do so myself.

  • Jen G

    I believe the mental health crisis for young people is largely due to a very sick culture that doesn't have much love for anyone that doesn't fit into the social mold of todays materalistic over worked society....

  • Kathy

    We are a different world today and I think teenagers feel the disconnection from family and society at large because of unintended influences and the consequences thereof. I'm not trying to be vague or cryptic, it's just that it is very hard to pinpoint just where it went from a statistical low to the highs we now have. I'm a parent of an adult child and I fought hard to understand him but never could get inside his mind. He lashed out constantly and I was afraid for him, for his stability and what he might do. These feelings have never left me in the face of seeing the overall picture of how young people seem to be bereft of any hope these days. I just pray that some make it through. If we made mental wellness a priority we should also have to include in there a holistic approach mind, body, spirit and do it in early years. Also, our kids have been exposed to the worse kind of depravity and soulessness there is. Their intake of negative stimuli is an assault to their senses and the way they see the world. They, en masse are stronger than we are: as individuals (and parents) to control the rage that was started subtly through various mediums and now we and they are paying for it. Parents, teachers, neighbors, gov't programs that facilitates enriched life experiences from a young age and the kids themselves all have responsibility in this. Unfortunately, I think hopelessness more than even depression is the trigger when it comes to suicide. Kids are numb. What is there that gives them any meaning? They are approved of if they "compete" and rise above their competition to best, better and be greater than the next person. To do any less means they have failed (in their minds) because let's face it there isn't enough to go around and the topdog took home the bone. Or the kid who doesn't achieve or has crappy parents, or doesn't fit in, in school? They either slip between the cracks and in fear and avoidance, run away from being exposed as different. What role models do they have that doesn't clash with their driving need to fit in with their peer groups? Their mental identities can't conceive of a healthy non conformity. I'm not talking about anti-social bitterness, but of coping mechanisms and self-acceptance. It's almost like they are darned if they do and darned if they don't. I feel so badly for kids today but I know there are a lot of good parents and teachers out there that care about them. It's just that the kids have stopped caring altogether and that's where the dangers lay. They see only one mirror and it shatters their hope that life is OK and they will make it alright in the world. They are teetering on the edge...and it breaks my heart.

  • Rachel

    I am a 24 year old college student, striving to enter the feild of social work and counseling. From personal experience, growing up a "troubled" teen, I was labled as a bad kid, and had a alot of good people trying to be in my corner-counselors, teachers, etc. From my veiwpoint though, I agree wholeheartedly with this article that the problems of adolescent mental health are either stigmatized or alltogether overlooked. I know that adults and my parents were often quick to criticize, but not too many of them would ask about how I was feeling or doing. It can really be lonely, and I think parents and teachers need to become more aware of the seriousness of their childrens' mental wellbeing, and also help to educate the youth to reach out and to inform them of resources that are out there for them. All too often those of us who may be suffering from a real mental illness will seek drugs and self destructive behavior to self medicate and to distract from our feelings and negative thoughts.

  • Lauren

    And I agree with what you're saying. I have so many issues, but it's difficult because I haven't got any adults that i trust enough to talk to about it. I used to cut myself, but overtime I've gotten rid of that habit, thank goodness, because it was only getting worse, not better. I still feel the need to hurt myself, and I recognize that my emotions are way too unstable to be normal. I know I need to get help, and I'm going to church now and trying. I talk to a really good friend of mine, and he used to cut himself, but now he's fine. I trust him, and it's just the fact that I know he'll listen to what I need to say is what I care about.

  • Beckie

    After reading this article, and many other similar articles, I have realised - I really do need help. I've known this for a number of years, I've just been too scared to do it. I've once been refered to a Child and Adolescent Health centre, but I was too scared to tell the truth and open up.. I guess I didn't want my parents involved - and I still don't. I'm 16, and I need help, I just don't know where to start. All my friends think I've seeked help, and that I'm going to get better. But to me, I'm getting worse, and worse. Any suggestions on what I can do? I don't want my parents involved..

  • Anonymous-2

    i have never known this things happens to teenagers. being bullied and wanting to kill yourself? i have been bullied but never have i thought about killing myself. im a teenager myslef. there isnt that many adults who can get along with teenagers. who plays about and still have some childish things about themslef. i feel more comfortable around them and i would share and problems with them type of people. most adults dont understand and easily judges you. you feel tapped and wanting to relish yuorslef. i took everything in when i got bullied. and i hope that this topic will be vanished and have nomore teeangers thinking about harming themslef.

  • Heather

    Firstly, I would like to state that I am a school social worker. I work in two very remotely, rural communities in South Texas. Since growing up in a rural town, I realized the need for counselors within schools. I too, went through horrible things growing up. I wish we would have had a caring professional to speak with, but we only had our school counselor, who focused on the academic part of school and not the personal issues of individuals.

    After needing someone to help me, as a teen, I decided I would become a counselor in school settings. In college, I found social work and became totally head over heals for the profession. I love how caring, genuine, and professional the social work field is, and had to be apart of this wonderful thing. Now, I am back near my hometown being exactly what I had always wanted, a school social worker, helping teens deal with life issues.

    I cannot say I have had many suicide/depressed clients in the schools, but I have had a few. It isn't something to be taken lightly whatsoever. Without caring professionals in the schools, the kids may ended their life. It is always important to share your feelings with a counselor. If you are not feeling your usual self, or are feeling uncomfortable with your thoughts, seek help. We are here for you!

    My therapeutic skills consist of support, empathy, and a genuine relationship with my client. Being this type, it has shown me how comfortable my students are to open their life to me. Intrapersonal therapy is great for schools, in my opinion.

    More schools are in need of social workers, counselors, psychologist, etc. and not ONLY rely on school counselors, who usually aren't focused enough on personal issues. Most of my students have told me how happy they are to have someone to talk to about their problems, because the school counselor doesn't. Schools should take into account the need for counselors within the school. I thank God for my calling in social work and thank God for letting me help these young people.

  • Jacquelyn

    Dealing with troubled teenagers is a very difficult thing for parents. If not handled correctly, it has the potential to rip families apart and bring lifelong consequences to teens and their families. If your teen is caught in a self-destructive cycle and you are at a loss about how you should deal with it, know that you are not alone. There are many parents that deal with the same problems that you do, and there are ways to help your teen out of these destructive patterns. Seek help if the need arises.

    It's never too late to help your teen break away from bad patterns. As long as you're willing to help them and to do what it takes to make a difference, there's hope. Don't go along with what your teen wants to do just so you can get along with them. Remember that the choices you make now as parents will have a big impact on the kind of adult life your teen will be looking forward to in a few years.

    For more information on helping your troubled teens learn about Turning Winds.