Recognizing the signs of mental illness in youth

Many mental illnesses first develop at a young age. Their symptoms can be like those seen in adults, but some symptoms are more common in young people – for example, difficulty paying attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Young people typically lack experience and knowledge of mental illness and often feel that their peers and even adults can’t understand what they are going through. As a result, they tend to hide their symptoms. It is also common for their symptoms to be discounted as “phases,” moodiness, or the natural behaviours of youth.

It’s important to acknowledge and openly discuss signs of mental illness in youth because the sooner young people are treated, the better their chances of recovery. Early intervention and treatment also makes the mental illness less likely to reoccur, and if it does, its severity may be greatly reduced.

Signs of mental illness in youth

Parents, teachers and friends are usually the first to recognize that a young person may be having significant problems with emotions or behaviour. The Canadian Psychiatric Society offers the following signs to look for in your teen, student, brother, sister, classmate, or friend that could mean a psychiatric evaluation would be useful:

  • Marked drop in school performance or increase in absenteeism
  • Excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs
  • Marked changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Many physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches)
  • Aggressive or non-aggressive consistent violations of rights of others: opposition to authority, truancy, thefts, vandalism, etc.
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
  • Depression shown by sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude, often accompanied by poor appetite, difficulty sleeping or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger and rage
  • Low energy level, poor concentration, complaints of boredom
  • Loss of enjoyment in what used to be favourite activities
  • Unusual neglect of personal appearance
  • Intense fear of becoming obese with no relationship to actual body weight
  • Uncharacteristic delinquent, thrill seeking or promiscuous behaviour
  • Marked personality change or bizarre behaviour
  • Comments about feeling worthless, wanting to “end things,” and soon no longer being a problem for others