Is This Normal?

Sometimes it can be difficult for a young adult, parent or teacher to know when one’s mood and/or behavior indicates an emotional or mental health issue. 90% of mental health issues begin to surface between the ages of 14-24 years. These ages coincide with significant developmental and life changes:

  • Puberty and related physiological changes
  • Peer pressure, dating, and friendships
  • School pressure
  • Employment and/or other new responsibilities
  • Developing one’s personal identity and values
  • Changes in living situation (such as moving to a college campus away from home)

These can be very stressful life events, and it is normal for one to feel overwhelmed or fearful during this time. However, that does not mean that coinciding moodiness or behavior changes should be “written off” due to these factors. Most young people will bounce back with the support of family and peers, by focusing on their ambitions or by pursuing their interests. Nonetheless, if these emotional and behavioral signs persist and affect daily functioning, this signals a need for professional services.

Important considerations to bear in mind when looking at the situation is to first open up the lines of communication. Do not assume that behavior and moodiness is a phase. Today’s youth face an exorbitant amount of stress such as increased competition, higher education costs, a volatile economy and increased costs of living. This is not to mention terrorist threats, war, environmental and other global issues. Reports of prevalent anxiety, depression, substance abuse and self-harm in youth indicate the need for consistent and vigilant attention on how a young person is coping.

What The Data Tells Us
The data below, garnered from a 2004 online survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of over 1,000 college students and 1,000 parents exemplifies discordant perspectives held by youth and parents regarding communication on mental health.

50% of students rate their mental health as below average or poor, while only 25 % of parents report their student’s mental health to be in this range. In addition, 30 % of students report that they or a friend have had problems functioning at school because of a mental health problem, yet only 7% of parents say their child has experienced this.

In contrast, the majority of parents – nearly 75 % – report that they or another family member discussed mental illness with their student prior to college. However, only 22 % of students report receiving this education.
(NAMI: Mental Illness Prolific Among College Students.)

Remember, the objective is not to interrogate or accuse your child, but to develop ways to communicate honestly about how they are feeling. If you feel they are “acting out”, it is important to to focus on why they are doing so.

Ask questions of anyone and everyone in your child’s life, starting with your child and family members, then teachers and coaches. Next, consult your primary care doctor. Many physical problems affect our behavioral or psychological well-being. Make an appointment with a primary care physician, identify the signs you are experiencing or witnessing, and have a complete physical examination of your child. If nothing is found, your physician should have access to reliable local referrals for a psychological evaluation.

Additional Information
There is a wealth of information on when and how to access help at www.aboutourkids.org and www.helpguide.org.

Warning signs that your teenager or young adult may need help:

  • Sad and hopeless for no reason that does not go away.
  • Strong anger most of the time, crying a lot or overreacting to things.
  • Feeling Worthless or guilty often.
  • Feeling Anxious or worried often.
  • Unable to get over a loss or death of someone important.
  • Extremely fearful or having unexplained fears.
  • Constantly concerned about physical problems or physical appearance.
  • Frightened that his or her mind either is controlled or is out of control.

A child or adolescent experiences big changes, such as:

  • Showing declining performance in school.
  • Losing interest in things once enjoyed.
  • Experiencing unexplained changes in sleeping or eating patterns.
  • Avoiding friends or family and wanting to be alone all the time.
  • Daydreaming too much and not completing tasks.
  • Feeling life is too hard to handle.
  • Hearing voices that cannot be explained.
  • Experiencing suicidal thoughts.

A child or adolescent experiences:

  • Poor concentration and unable to think straight or make decisions.
  • An inability to sit still or focus attention.
  • Worry about being harmed, hurting others, or doing something “bad”.
  • A need to wash, clean things, or perform certain routines hundreds of times a day.
  • Racing thoughts and/or speech that are almost too fast to follow.
  • Persistent nightmares.

A child or adolescent behaves in ways that cause problems, such as:

  • Using alcohol or other drugs.
  • Eating large amounts of food and then purging, or abusing laxatives, to avoid weight gain.
  • Dieting and/or exercising obsessively.
  • Violating the rights of others or constantly breaking the law without regard for other people.
  • Setting fires.
  • Doing things that can be life threatening.
  • Killing animals.

(From SAMHSA’s National Mental Health Information Center, www.samhsa.gov.)