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Home|Mental Health|Does My Teenager Have a Mental Illness?

Parents will go to great lengths to give their kids the best childhood experience they can. They make sacrifices to ensure their child is able to go to the best schools available or to live in a safe neighborhood. They cook nutritious meals and limit the child’s exposure to technology. They enroll the child in sports, scouting, and music lessons. By all accounts, many parents appear to be doing everything in their power to offer their child the advantages of a stable, happy early life experience.

So, when a teenage suddenly begins to exhibit unusual behaviors it can catch the parent completely off guard. At first, a parent might chalk the mood swings and irritability up to typical teen moodiness and not worry about it. But when symptoms persist or escalate, parents may ask themselves, “Does my teenager have a mental illness?” They may wonder what is going on with their kid or if something has gone terribly wrong.

The reality is that, although a child may have had a stellar, drama-free childhood, the predisposition to mental illness may be genetic, meaning it is outside the parent’s control. Maybe there is a family history of bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, or anxiety. Family history is a risk factor for developing mental health disorders. Physiology is another risk factor for mental illness, involving brain chemistry and functioning. Environmental factors, such as a series of stressful life events, childhood abuse or neglect, or trauma exposure may also play a role in mental illness.

While it may be disconcerting to wonder does my teenager have a mental illness, addressing it early on is always advisable. A mental health disorder, if left undiagnosed and untreated, can become a more serious disorder in adulthood. Also, unmanaged mental illness can wreak havoc in all areas of a teen’s life, including the academic, social, physical, and interpersonal aspects.

Common Types of Mental Illness in Teens

Today’s teens face a more nuanced assortment of mental health challenges than those from past decades. Possible causes for this increase in mental health issues may include a significant increase in ADHD diagnoses, attachment disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, social dysfunction, and trauma disorder. When a mental health disorder threatens a teen’s promising future, and their mental state is deteriorating, parents recognize the need to see a professional.

The most common mental health disorders in teens today include:

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders feature excessive worry and stress around some aspect of thought/behavior patterns. Anxiety disorders encompass several subtypes, including


Depression is characterized by a cluster of symptoms that last more than two weeks, including persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, sleep problems, change in eating habits, slowed psychomotor skills, feelings of guilt or shame, and suicidal thoughts.

Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD features an inability to remain on task, excessive activity or motion, not completing assignments, forgetfulness, poor listening skills, or difficulty paying attention

Eating disorders

Eating disorders, including bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder, feature unhealthy relationships with food or eating habits, weight gain or loss, body dysmorphia, using food to fulfill emotional void or to soothe emotional pain, or to attain a sense of control over their life.

Self-harming behaviors in Teens

Teenage depression and self-harm is on the rise in the nation. Since the early 2000s, self-harm rates among girls aged 10-14 jumped 166%, and rose 62% among girls aged 15-19, as reported by JAMA in 2017. Increasing rates of each, along with rising suicide rates, act as a clarion call to parents, teachers, and physicians to help kids struggling with mood disorders or emotional problems. That so many teens are resorting to such drastic behaviors to find psychological relief is something that must be taken seriously.

There are various types of self-harming behaviors. At the foundation, self-harming behaviors encompass those behaviors that are self-mutilating or self-injurious to the teen. Some of these might include:

  • Cutting
  • Burning with candle wax, matches, or lighters
  • Branding
  • Head-banging
  • Self-strangulation
  • Pulling hair out
  • Picking skin

Cutting and other self-harming behaviors in teens often co-occur with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety disorder, depression, trauma disorder, bipolar disorder, or substance use disorder. When a coexisting mental health disorder is present it is important for the teen to receive intensive psychological or psychiatric intervention.

What Should a Parent Do if They Suspect Their Teen Has Mental Illness?

Too often, adolescents in distress turn to unhealthy methods to self-medicate or manage emotional strife. Recreational drug or alcohol abuse, promiscuous sex, self-harm, or high-risk behaviors are signs that a teen is in need of help. Acknowledging these signs and proactively seeking treatment for the teen is the appropriate course of action. Teen suicide rates have ratcheted up 56% in the past decade, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control. Each day more than 3,700 suicide attempts are made by teens 14-18 years of age.

Parents who wonder, “Does my teenager have a mental illness,” can reach out first to their primary care provider to discuss the teen’s signs of distress. On occasion these symptoms may be attributed to a medical condition or a reaction to a medication. After a physical assessment the doctor can determine if the teen should be referred to a mental health provider.

Private practice mental health treatment is the usual first step in treating a teen for a mental health issue. The psychiatrist can prescribe medication and psychotherapy, and refer the teen to a support group. The treatment plan will also include family therapy, which assists family members in learning how to be supportive of the teen, and also how to set healthy boundaries and expectations. Medication may or may not be prescribed, depending on how impaired the teen is in their daily functioning. Antidepressants are judiciously monitored, as some of these contain a Black Box warning regarding the side effect of possible suicidal tendencies.

When a Teen Needs a Higher Level of Care

While outpatient mental health services can help the majority of teens suffering from a mental health disorder, in some cases more intensive support is indicated. Certain symptoms of distress can point to the need for the adolescent to obtain a higher level of care. When a teen is exhibiting multiple signs of distress, or if a psychiatric emergency evolves, it is important to seek treatment at a residential teen mental health center. These symptoms might include:

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Experiencing psychosis, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia
  • Violent behavior
  • Intense irritability
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed
  • Isolating behavior, withdraws from family
  • Detachment behavior
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Sudden changes in eating habits resulting in weight loss or gain in a short time
  • Escalation of existing mental health disorder symptoms
  • Suicide attempts or threatens suicide

What is Teen Residential Mental Health Treatment?

There are several benefits to arranging for your teen to receive the intensive treatment provided by a residential program. A teen residential program is typically a small, intimate setting that provides relief from the sources of psychological distress where the teen can focus entirely on healing and learning new coping skills.

Acute stabilization: If the teen is in crisis, such as experiencing a psychiatric event or a suicide attempt, an inpatient setting provides the 24 hour monitoring and support to stabilize them. Stabilization will involve a review of any current medications and any relevant information regarding the acute event.

More targeted treatment: Offering more focused therapy than is usually provided through outpatient mental health services. Treatment plans are customized to address unique features of the diagnosis, or a dual diagnosis.

Medical detoxification: For teens with co-occurring addiction or substance abuse issues, the residential setting can provide a safe, medical detox that is monitored throughout. Withdrawal symptoms will be carefully managed and psychological support is provided.

The most effective inpatient teen treatment programs will utilize a multi-disciplinary approach, incorporating traditional psychotherapy interventions as well as adjunct therapies that complement and augment those evidence-based therapies. The therapy sessions should include both individual and group formats.

For treating teen mental health disorders the following therapies are often accessed:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Solution Focused Therapy (SFT)
  • Mindfulness–Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)

Complementary activity-based therapies that resonate with teens can amplify the clinical results. These might include surf therapy, equine therapy, psychodrama therapy, art therapy, yoga, and meditation. These experiential therapies inspire introspection, promote relaxation, and reduce stress, which all benefit the therapeutic experience. Combined with psychosocial interventions, psychotherapy, and medication, this comprehensive approach to managing mental health conditions has a high rate of long-term success.

BNI Treatment Centers for Teen Residential Mental Health Treatment Los Angeles

BNI Treatment Centers provides a multi-disciplinary and customized approach to treating teens in the Los Angeles region. At BNI Treatment, teens are treated with respect and compassion as they work toward resolving mental health issues and improving their quality of life. Teens will participate in a thorough intake process, including psychological assessments, medical exam, and an intake interview, that will help the clinical team design a completely customized treatment plan. BNI also provides medical detox and dual diagnosis treatment if a co-occurring substance use disorder is diagnosed. For more information about the program, or if you are a parent asking, “Does my teenager have a mental illness,” please contact BNI Treatment today at (888) 522-1504.

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