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The Problem With “Teen Angst” and Why You Should Take Teens’ Mental Health Seriously

[Content note: depression and suicide]

There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.

I’m thinking about this now because last night I ran across this Facebook page. It’s called “No Respect For Suicidal Teens,” and please don’t click on it unless you’re prepared for the hateful victim-blaming that it promotes. (If you can, though, you should go and report it.)

First of all, it’s completely false that teens can’t “really” be depressed and suicidal. Although the age of onset for depression and bipolar disorder is most commonly in the late teens and 20s, many people report that their chronic mood disorder began when they were teens. (Count me among them.) Left untreated, mood disorders often get progressively worse, or they remit on their own but then keep recurring.

Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.

And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)

Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.

So a teenager whose emotional experience is characterized by “angst” can benefit from seeking help even if they don’t have a “Real Problem.” All problems are real; the fact that they can vary dramatically in scope and magnitude doesn’t make them any more or less so.

And what if every teenager needs help managing their mental health during adolescence? Doesn’t that mean we’re making mountains out of molehills and inventing problems where none exist?

Nope. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.

It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”

Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone changed their minds very quickly once I became so depressed I could barely function and thought about suicide constantly. Perhaps that could’ve been prevented had I gotten help earlier rather than taking everyone’s analysis of my “over-dramatic” personality to heart.

If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.

Comments

  1. Kristee says

    Thanks for posting this. I too struggled as a teen and young adult and still do today. It seems to me the person who created that page had someone close to them commit suicide and is in the angry phase of their grief. Unless you have had the constant feeling of mental agony creeping into every corner of your head and spent measurable time wishing you could crawl into a dark hole and disappear, I don’t think it’s appropriate to look down on mental illness. People who have these type of issues are probably suffering inside more than a mentally healthy person could ever comprehend. Although I am healthier now as an adult, it is sometimes brutally difficult to maintain a family life and still try to keep it that way.

  2. Kate Donovan says

    Tied in with this, I think, is the problematic way dismiss teen girls who worry about their appearance as normal and expected. Some of that has to do with the narrative that says
    “all women worry about their weight!”
    But more problematically is the way that feeds into treating dieting and obsessive calorie counting or unhealthy food attitudes as a way in which girls are growing up. It’s not abnormal to worry about your size or your weight, because everyone is doing it! It’s not bad to diet dangerously, because it’s what teen girls do!

    When we normalize that attitude, we let everyone for whom those thoughts turn into disordered eating slip through the cracks. We tell them there’s nothing wrong, because they’re just like everyone else.

    • says

      Going along with that, if all women really so worry about their weight, isn’t that a huge problem? I wonder why people never see it that way. It’s like they conceptualize “normal” and “abnormal” in terms of statistics only.

      • Kate Donovan says

        Yeah, you know how ranty I get about “Well, it seems like all women have something like [eating disorder I'm describing]!” Yeah, thanks for shrugging off the huge prevalence of a mental illness.

      • John Horstman says

        Well, people are terrible at critiquing the status quo, especially conservative-oriented people (the worldview that favors maintaining the status quo above all else, not the political identity, though the two are related) who are actively fearful of of change. For people who fear the new, “normal” is inherently good because it’s more of the same.

  3. Stacy says

    When I was about 16 I told my aunt (who was my guardian) that I needed help.

    I had lost both my parents within a year and a half, both to excruciating, slow illnesses, and religious denialism had made it impossible for me to deal effectively or even realistically with the deaths. I was an only child who’d lost everything, even most of my possessions. In addition, I had a facial deformity and was regularly harassed because of it.

    My aunt’s reaction? I was fine and needed to stop reading Anne Sexton so much.

    • Kate Donovan says

      I’m so sorry for your experience.
      I’ve also noticed a recent trend towards “oh, any psychiatrist will write off grief as depression, just so they can give you meds!”
      This utterly ignores everyone who suffers from depression (or any other illness) triggered by a stressful experience.

  4. smrnda says

    Just wanted to get an opinion because several people I know who have had mental health issues told me that their issues only improved once they were adults and could make decisions for themselves, and that they were worse when they were younger since they were stuck dealing with their parents and had less control over their own lives. I think unhealthy parent-child relationships are an understated factor in this a lot of the time.

  5. Brownian says

    If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

    QFT.

  6. Philip C. says

    I’m having a hard time writing this, because it disagrees a little with what you wrote, but I think it’s important that medicine and psychiatry might be the right specialty to call upon rather than talk therapy: a good GP will help much more than a bad therapist. A bad GP will do damage, but rarely as much as a suicide.

    Psychiatry has a horrible history, but in principle it’s still the right form of treatment for mental health issues: as health issues, using medication or physical therapy in addition to talk therapy as appropriate.

    I don’t think the stigma of mental illness can be reduced if we refuse to use the word “psychiatry”. Sometimes, that will be what happens when you seek treatment for yourself or others, particularly if suicide is mentioned.

    • says

      That’s true, and it doesn’t really disagree with what I wrote; it just addresses a facet of it that I didn’t really get to in the post. :)

      I do want to emphasize, though, that it’s almost never truly effective to use psychiatric medication without also seeing a therapist at the same time, whereas therapy can be effective without medication. I don’t think you meant to imply otherwise, but I just wanted to clear that up just in case.

      Also, medication isn’t really the best option for issues that are very mild, and part of my point was that people shouldn’t be discouraged from seeking professional help just because they don’t have a Real Mental Illness.

      However, you’re right that psychiatry is an integral part of mental health whether we like it or not, and it carries its own type of stigma that should be reduced.

      • psocoptera says

        I have to seriously disagree. It depends on the type of condition being treated. For depression and anxiety, the data support your point, but the psychoses and dementia do not necessarily require talk therapy or respond to them. ADHD also responds remarkably well to meds, and therapy without meds is not an effective treatment. Psychiatry is a big heterogeneous field.

  7. says

    Thank you for this post. Just, ugh, thank you.

    I’ve had psychological issues for a looooong time. I remember having complete anxious freakouts when I was 8 regarding whether I’d put my homework in my backpack or not. But when I was stressed, I was… too young to be stressed.

    My depression started around when I was 11, maybe a bit earlier… but that was too early to have depression.

    Unless of course you were a troubled-youth-juvenile-delinquent type. Then you could have depression and anxiety. And, as such, if you had either you were a juvenile delinquent and needed to be treated as such (and that was INSIDE the psychiatric system meant to help me… ugh)

    It’s an awful thing to be put through when you already have enough problems coming from inside your head. You’re already depressed (or what have you) but then you need to be tossed back and forth between “lazy” and “faking it for attention” and “troubled child.”

    I swear, I could write a whole damn book about all the shit that’s wrong with how minors are treated in psychiatric care. So I’m glad you’re talking about the subject.

  8. Kelly says

    I agree with all of the above. I spend a lot of time with younger teen aged siblings and their friends and teens on social networks, and there is definitely mental illness, real, tangible, painful mental illness exhibited by teens. I had a nervous break down at 16 with multiple mental illness’s and I think it is over looked that we have children who look older then ‘what a teenager looks like’, whatever that means, they are statistically taller, more mature looking, and maturing physically faster, they are involved in adult activities younger then previous generations, and they have to deal with adult problems in their family as well as socially and because of the advent of the Internet. We have children who, in all elements of their life are maturing faster then previous generations, maturing differently is perhaps a better phrase, along with all of the above issues mental health or the lack of it is such a huge factor, teens and even younger have more pressure then any generation before, and fewer skills to manage the stress, anxiety, depression or milder variations of those feeling, when many have parents who are working full time, and sometimes two jobs to give them a certain lifestyle. There are so many more factors to teens declining, or notable mental disorders/diseases, that when you break them down to the stress of an individual teen, it’s no wonder that those prone genetically or through life experience to mental illness would be getting it younger. This is a great article, and I fully agree with what you are saying. Thank you for writing it.

  9. Nonnie says

    I can sort of understand where people in that facebook group are coming from (well I think I can – the link is not working so maybe it’s been shut down already?). I think back to super-angsty teenage me and roll my eyes. I was so profoundly self-absorbed! Probably some teens who say they are suicidal are narcissistic and attention-seeking. And, yeah, those traits are really annoying in other people. But I think the point people miss is that the unhappiness is still very real. And teens often don’t have the tools to help themselves or the experience to know things will change. I surely think even a few compassionately given words of advice could have saved me years of unhappiness while I figured it out by myself. (I am just speaking of the teens without a “real problem”. I’m definitely not comfortable commenting on teens with mental health issues or family life problems, etc.)

  10. kailan says

    I spent most of my teenage years suffering from untreated recurrent depression. There was a halfhearted attempt at therapy when I was fourteen and admitted to suicidal ideation but that petered out after a couple of months. My parents not only thought it was “teen angst,” they were far more concerned with my younger sister who at that point in her life was making very poor decisions that were potentially quite dangerous, and I’d always been emotionally volatile anyway. I suspect that they assumed it would work itself out once I got older.

    Well, it didn’t. I went off to college and the stress of a changing lifestyle and schedule and trying to adjust to it sent me into mania, and after that the ups and downs happened like clockwork, every season. If a couple of close friends hadn’t noticed and managed to convince me to seek some kind of help (for the increasingly severe depressive episodes if nothing else; turns out that staying in bed for weeks on end does terrible things to your GPA), I’m really not sure I would have graduated from college. As it was, I ended up in hospital for a couple of weeks and had to take a medical leave of absence from school for a while.

    And I was lucky. I was lucky that someone saw and recognized what it was and knew it wasn’t just some “phase” I’d grow out of at some point in my life.

    Anyway, point is this: Sure, a lot of us go through a sullen phase as adolescents that changes as we age. Sometimes though, it’s not a phase, and there’s no real way to tell them apart. So ignoring or dismissing them is really not the best thing to do.

    I think the reason you see facebook walls like that one is that the myth of “teenagers do it for attention, they aren’t serious” is still so pervasive, when the reality is that most people who threaten to kill themselves do in fact make an attempt. And really, let’s be honest: let’s say you’re doing it for attention. If you feel that you have to actually threaten to kill yourself in order to get whatever it is you want or need, there is *still* something desperately wrong and you need help.

  11. Zeus says

    I really don’t remember many adolescents going through a sullen phase. The vast majority seem to do really well and hang out among large groups of people.

  12. M says

    I really wanted to thank you for this.
    Now that I’m 19, people are starting to take me seriously, I wish they had taken me as seriously when I was 14 and depressed. If they had done that back then, I know I’d be a lot better now. I’m crying as I write this, all I want is to go back in time and help myself, because nobody else would.

  13. flip the second says

    M, I know exactly how you feel. I’ve been depressed before I was 10, and only really told my parents when I was 17. To this day (I am in imy 30s) they still don’t acknowledge it. I am often quite upset that if I had only been treated differently and gotten help earlier, things might not be so bad now. I quickly taught myself as a kid that no one was going to help, so I had to help myself.. I wish I had some comforting words, but all I can offer is some virtual support and hugs, and my sincere hope is that you have at least, the help from a good doctor/psychologist.

    Miri – thanks for posting this. I often find that people are surprised to learn that children can be depressed or suicidal; more needs to be done to change people’s ideas about teenage ‘angst’ and ‘sullen’ children. Seriously, this post needs to be sung from the rooftops.

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