According to the World Health Organization, one in five adults in the United States suffers from a mental illness over their lifetime. Right now, nearly 10 million Americans (1 in 25) are living with serious mental disorder that includes anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.
In this article, we celebrate mental health awareness as an opportunity to share our feelings and thoughts out loud. Mental health is as important as physical health for adolescents. It is crucial for their development towards adulthood.
Dr. Carlú Arias, a Venezuelan psychiatrist, explains that mental health is a state of general well-being, that is, “we feel good about ourselves.” This well-being is directly related to the way we think, how we handle our emotions and how we behave when we are accompanied or alone.
“Mental health allows us to maintain personal and family relationships, it allows us to perform at work, school, or university. It allows us to make contributions to our community and to participate in various activities,” says Dr. Arias.
Mental health and adolescence Preserving mental health is important because it can affect physical health as well. For example, mental disorders can increase the risk to suffer a stroke, type 2 diabetes, and/or heart disease. In addition, mental health is important in all stages of life.
Psychiatry considers that adolescence begins at the age of 10 and ends at 19. The World Health Organization emphasizes that the multiple physical, emotional and social changes that occur during adolescence, including exposure to poverty, abuse, or violence, can make teens even more vulnerable to mental health problems.
Dr. Arias highlights that “50% of mental disorders begin in adolescence, at approximately 12 or 13 years of age, and in most cases, they do not receive adequate treatment because they go unnoticed.”
Mental health, adolescence, and risk factors The factors that determine the mental health of the adolescent are multiple. The effects will be greater when teens expose to more risk factors.
In the first place, because adolescents are in a “duel … they lost their childhood, when they did not have great responsibilities”, describes Arias.
Other factors that can contribute to stress during adolescence include the desire for greater autonomy, pressure from their peers, and greater access to and use of technology.
In addition, it is a stage in which very important decisions must be made, decisions that will determine adult life, such as the university degree to study, the job to do, and the place to live, among others.
The quality of family life and relationships with their peers and the exploration of sexual identity are also risk factors, because “they are in a process of identification, and parents are not role models. They begin to identify with other people, artists, politicians, teachers, and grandparents. Identifying with these people means that they will imitate behaviors, ways of dressing, hairstyle, among others ”.
Mental health and biological and socioeconomic risk factors Dr. Arias summarizes two fundamental factors: Biological factors that arise from genetic alterations and socioeconomic factors determined by income, education, and the occupation of the members of the household.
Biological factors define “children born with intellectual dysfunction, mental retardation, autism spectrum disorders.” Children of mothers who consume alcohol, drugs, or smoke cigarettes during pregnancy have a higher risk of suffering mental health diseases. “They are born with low weight and alterations in the development of the nervous system from before birth”, describes Dr. Arias.
Poverty negatively affects people's mental health, especially the health of adolescents. Therefore, socioeconomic factors are decisive in the mental health of children and adolescents. They are stuck in a vicious circle, without access to quality education or new technologies, poor diet, and lack of medical assistance that prevents them from joining society through education and formal jobs that help them get out of poverty.
Mental health disorders, symptoms, and professional help When adolescents have mental health disorders, they can give us a series of signals that should ignite our hearts to intervene and seek help. Some symptoms are:
1. Changes in sleep pattern. 2. Isolation from family, friends, or from sports, and cultural activities. 3. Changes in academic performance. 4. Consumption of alcohol and drugs. 5. Sudden mood swings. 6. Crying for no apparent reason. 7. Expressions of hopelessness. 8. Lack of motivation. 9. Lack of self-esteem.
More serious symptoms:
1. Self-mutilation: cutting, wounding, flogging themselves. 2. Suicidal thoughts and/or conversations.
The key is to take a holistic approach and seek professional help. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and family doctors are the best people to guide you and your family in these cases. Don't get carried away by the stigma that often accompanies mental illness, seek help, join a support group, doesn't identify with your illness.
Mental health, family, and the role of parents It is also important to have a supportive environment at school, in the general community, and in the family. Marital conflicts (separations or divorces) or different forms of abuse (physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect of care) are the most frequent associated factors. “Dysfunctional families alter the mental health of adolescents,” emphasizes the psychiatrist.
“In the family, we learn values, honesty, and religious values. We learn to face situations in some way ”, adds the doctor.
The family is the primary model and contributes to the mental health of adolescents. Parents should avoid comparisons between siblings and other family members, ask how to support them, keep promises, be present at moments that are important to them, and be clear about the parenting role.
In addition, parents must discipline, and guide their life. Friends are accomplices and play, the role of parents is very different. Spend quality time talking with teens and being open to “taboo” topics like sexuality, birth control, drugs, alcohol, love, dating, and falling in love. Showing affection to their children, both females, and males is very important.
It is very common for parents not to show affection to their male children for fear of homosexuality. Dr. Arias stressed that, especially among Hispanic families, and pointed out that “they cannot be afraid to express affection to their boys. On the contrary, it is a gesture that they (their children) will be grateful for a lifetime ”.
Promotion of mental health in adolescents The promotion of adolescent mental health aims at strengthening their ability to regulate their emotions, promote alternatives to risky behaviors, develop resilience in difficult situations and promote favorable environments and social networks for the present and the future.
“Give children the opportunity to learn another language, to travel, to learn to cook, to take a painting course or some course that they like. We (parents) don't know how long we will be present in their lives, and sometimes these courses help them earn a living ”, advises Dr. Arias.
The family facilitates the stability and development of its members. Protection, human exchange, and learning make the family the basis for coexistence that prepares the citizens of the future. Let's strengthen our capacities by giving love, trust, and opportunities to our teenagers.