Teenage mental health - a cause for concern by Dr Shweta Jaiswal

Being the parent of a teenager in today’s times is challenging to say the least. It is a disconcerting thought that right now you are most probably clueless of what’s going on in your teenager’s mind. Some of the really lucky parents at least have some communication going on with their teenage kids, while most are actually struggling to understand and connect with their teenagers. It’s not just the parents, the teens are also having a tough time, what with so much going around them and inside them in the form of hormonal changes. They are equally if not more confused.

The current generation of teenagers and young adults are under tremendous pressure, be it the social media, peer pressure, the pressure from parents & family and not to mention the never ending stress of studies & career selection and to top it all they are expected to know it all! Early adolescence is when most of the mental disorders occur, and they account for a significant proportion of the mental health burden worldwide, including in India. The major challenges in India are delay in the early identification of mental health problems, treatment gaps, lack of professionals and interventions to address these problems. More often than not the acknowledgement that a teen is having some mental health issue is lacking, even in the urban setting. It is still a taboo subject with everyone just trying to act as if not acknowledging the topic would make it disappear automatically. 

According to a 2022 review article by Mehra Devika et al, India has the highest number of adolescents in the world, accounting for about one-fifth of the population (243 million). According to a meta-analysis, 6.5% of the population and 23.3% of school-aged children and adolescents suffer from one form or the other of psychiatric disorders. India has the highest youth suicide rate in the world, and suicide is the leading cause of death in this population. As per the National Mental Health Survey (2015–2016) there is a prevalence of psychiatric disorders of 7% in the 13–to 17-year-old age group, which was nearly equal for both genders. The overall impact of mental illnesses on society is enormous, and awareness of the severity of mental illness is very low to say the least. It is alarming to know that the economic burden of mental disorders exceeds that of other non-communicable diseases. It can be as high as 4% of gross national product, of which only 2% is spent on treating mentally ill people in developing countries. The total treatment gap for mental health disorders in India is as high as 90%.

What do these statistics mean to a regular parent? Simply put this indicates that there is an alarming increase in the mental health issues in teenagers which is causing some serious damage to them and it’s not even being recognized. Also another concern is that the mental health issues are not just restricted to the teenagers of cities, it is equally impacting the youth in the rural areas maybe to a greater extent than the cities. The additional concerns which arise in the rural settings are lack of structured education, poverty, inaccessibility of advanced resources for studies, and unavailability of quality healthcare. All these make the rural teens more vulnerable to mental illnesses and less likely to get any understanding, support or treatment for it.

Essentially this translates to a grave concern not just for the parents of the teenagers but the society as a whole. Today’s teens are undergoing a lot what with the increased exposure to social media, and the concept of ‘instant gratification’, the average teen has drastically reduced attention span and patience. To add to this the ‘relationship issues’ they face sometimes just tips the balance towards depression/anxiety/mental instability in them. When faced with such a situation these teens don’t know whom to go to? Most are hesitant to share their thoughts/feelings with their parents for fear of being judged or reprimanded. At the same time they are afraid to seek help from strangers in the form of help-lines or counselors. This leads to them seeking refuge in friends who may not be in a position to help themselves or worse to some or the other sort of addiction or in the worst case to suicide. 

How can we as parents help? The first and most important step is ‘Acceptance’, accept that your teenage child may have some mental health issue and it can be treated. When a child feels safe in his/her home and understands that he/she will not be judged or shunned for talking about it will he/she open up. Sometimes the cause can be issues at the home as well in the form of domestic violence, body shaming, judgmental parents or sibling issues, in such cases its best to seek professional help. The second thing that we as parents can do is to not become doctors ourselves, we have the best intention at heart for our children but that’s not enough. Seeking the help of professionals in the form of psychiatrists, psychotherapists, counselors, or a helpline and even mental health support groups is where we should focus.

The third thing to do is to provide teenagers with a safe environment be it at home or at schools and even the society as a whole. We parents need to be aware and involved in what is going on in the lives of our teens while at the same time not becoming one of the factors that’s causing them anxiety. We also need to understand that setting unrealistic expectations from our children and then berating them about it causes them a lot of strife. This doesn’t mean that we should just let them be, it’s a fine balancing act that the parents have to do and it certainly won’t be easy. But if we truly want to make our teens grow into healthy adults we have to act pragmatically.

Last but not the least once the mental health issue is out in the open, getting it treated, being supportive, being caring will be a continuous journey for the entire family. So if needed the parents should also be willing to consider therapy for themselves. Nobody is a born parent, and we as parents can also make mistakes. The idea is to accept our limitations and seek help if we need it as well. Mental health is important for everyone and only when the family, the society is willing to embark on this journey together can we all heal and grow.

In the famous words of Socrates ‘Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’