Expert Advice

Recognising signs of mental illness in teens saves lives

Three things you can look for at home.

By Rebel Wylie
The rising numbers of suicide and mental illness in young people around Australia is concerning for everyone, particularly parents and families on the frontlines of the teen years.
But there is plenty you can do at home to ensure you're remain on top of any signals that your child is reaching out for support.
The data is alarming. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics:
  • 75 percent of mental illness starts before the age of 24
  • 14 percent of children and teenagers in Australia have a diagnosable mental health problem
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 44
And those are just the known cases, the people who have seen their GP, perhaps entered into a mental health care plan or have been officially diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
There are many more who are perhaps not receiving the support that could help them.
Parents often unintentionally miss the warning signs that something is wrong with their teenager, as it can be difficult to differentiate normal behaviour from the warning signs of a teen not coping.
14 percent of children and teenagers in Australia have a diagnosable mental health problem.
Davina Donovan from teen coaching organisation, Speak Teen! says that doesn't mean that we can't learn how to identify those signs more easily.
"I think it's important for every parent to have some kind of support framework as they enter into parenting teens," she says. "It's a really vulnerable time, so some kind of help to navigate it is valuable, I would say almost from day."
The big issues teens face might not be the ones we necessarily assume that are worrying them either.
Davina Donovan from teen coaching organisation, Speak Teen! speaks fluent teenager.
The big issues teens face might not be the ones we necessarily assume that are worrying them either.
"Teenagers are telling Speak Teen! coaches things that they're not telling their parents and it's not secrets about parties or risky behaviour, rather insights about their homes and relationships that many parents are often surprised to hear."
A feeling of being understood and belonging is what teens are really looking for, and that begins at home.
Being able to look past the often big and emotional behaviour of teens, to see the more delicate signals beneath is a skill that can help parents identify when their teen needs a little more support and the empathy they crave.
A feeling of being understood and belonging is what teens are really looking for.

Three teen mental health warning signs parents should look out for:

  1. Any change in what is considered 'normal' behaviour for your child should be addressed as changing behaviour can indicate a problem.
  1. Withdrawal from social activities can suggest something is not right. There will be times when a teenager won't participate in their usual activities however if a parent sees a consistent pattern of isolation from family, friends and activities this should be addressed.
  1. The mood of your teen is another common warning sign. The teenage years are fraught with highs and lows in emotion and this is normal (in young men, anger is not uncommon and in young women, sadness). However, if you notice your teenager experiencing these emotions frequently, without a shift back to their 'normal self', there might be a problem and this should be addressed.
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When you've established that your child needs support, it can be easy to want to rush in and fix it.
However teenagers don't want help, they want support to navigate through the issue themselves.
"Using language like 'I've noticed that you …' is really beneficial," says Davina. "Saying that you've noticed them lets them know that you care.
"Teens are hypersensitive to criticism, so saying 'I've noticed that you're staying home more …' or 'I've noticed that you've been quiet …' without judgement lets them know they can confide in you."
Getting outside help empowers teenagers and their parents with social, emotional and mental strategies to help them navigate the most challenging years of their lives.
Davina suggests subtly leaving brochures for resources around the home.
"It lets them know that you're there for them, and you're also happy for them to take the reins on this themselves however they need. Nobody should have to go through these tough years alone."
If you or anyone you know is suffering, contact Lifeline on 1311 14 or visit Headspace. You can also visit at Beyond Blue or call 1300 22 4636.