These days it seems like more kids are struggling with mental health issues. Perhaps we are just more willing to talk about it openly in society, with mental illness is a little less stigmatized than it used to be decades ago.
However, there is a wide spectrum and ranges in severity when it comes to mental illness. When mental illness emerges in teenagers, the odd behaviors can sometimes be written off as just caused by teenage hormones. General anxiety and personality disorders can get thrown in the mix to make it even more difficult to recognize bipolar disorder or schizophrenia right away.
Many teenagers are overly dramatic, very emotional and immature. Teens also get into drugs and these factors can disguise an emerging mental illness. And yet, there is a big difference between a teenager who drives too fast, takes other risks, or dresses all in black, compared to a teenager who starts talking at the dinner table about the how the neighbor is spying on them. Unequivocal statements of paranoia or admitting to having hallucinations are not a natural part of teen rebellion or rites of passage.
Mental health specialists warn parents about the signs they should look for when a teen is depressed or suicidal, and often the signs include a sudden departure from their normal demeanor, appetite or sleeping pattern. Teens in the middle of a mental health crisis are usually not excelling in school, although they may be able to hide some of their psychosis within their own social circles. Young or older, we often give creative people a free pass to be eccentric and I’m sure some of that was going on with my own son, the rock star. He might have said bizarre things to friends and they would not have suspected anything to be wrong.
Some parents notice their child’s psychological challenges from a much earlier age. It is not uncommon for a child with A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. to develop into bipolar disorder later. Some people even think that schizophrenia may be on the Autism spectrum. That said, a lot of parents feel blind-sided when their gifted, gregarious child with so much potential ends up failing in high school or dropping out of college, consumed by their delusions as the illness begins to take hold.
Certainly, if there is a family history of mental illness, parents and siblings will be less shocked, but it is still a huge disappointment when family realizes what a tough road their loved one has ahead of them.
Whether young or older, lack of insight into one’s own mental illness is not just a form of denial, but actually part of the disease itself. No one knows what it is like to be someone else, so most of us would rebuff another person trying to tell us that our own perception of reality is incorrect.
In trying to recognize and treat adolescent mental illness as quickly as possible, there is no tidy check-list to refer to. However, I do recommend that parents seek out professional advice from a specialist in adolescent psychiatry as soon as possible. Better to have an over-reaction than to waste precious time with unqualified school personnel or to take a “wait and see” approach when your gut instincts know that something serious is going on.
Kartar Diamond is a Mental Illness Advocate and author of Noah’s Schizophrenia: A Mother’s Search for Truth.