Teens are constantly stressed over school assignments and a desire to fit in — pressures to succeed and be accepted.
They stay up late working on assignments, hoping their grades will one day stand out on college applications. And they spend hours counting “likes” on social media, trying to achieve a certain, often unattainable, image.
Meanwhile, hormones run rampant, and teens worry they’ll inherit a dying Earth divided by politics and religions.
With so much chaos and noise, it can be difficult for youth to find their own voice. All of the thoughts and influences can make it seem like the world is falling apart, and inevitably, teens’ mental health can be negatively affected.
As proposed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, psychological health plays the greatest role in human happiness. Without it, one cannot be motivated — and without motivation, they can feel there is no reason to live.
“Mental health impacts everything we do, as teenagers and throughout our lifespan. It’s the lens through which we make our choices and navigate life,” agreed Erin Doerwald, a licensed clinical social worker and program director at The Sky Center of the New Mexico Suicide Intervention Project. “When that lens is foggy, we can’t see clearly or get ourselves going in the direction that will help us find our truest and most meaningful path.”
For Santa Fe High School freshman Luna Parra, aspects of her life have been hindered by depression, which she’s struggled with for about a year. Parra recalls losing interest in things she was once passionate about and remembers her grades slipping in school “until I had begun to organize my thoughts and feelings.”
While Parra still struggles with depression, she said things have gotten much better.
“It can be hard to show your true feelings, but I’m glad I did because I don’t know how far I could have plummeted,” she said.
Katie Hall, a licensed therapist and counselor with Open Sky Art Therapy and Counseling, echoed Parra: “It is important to understand and express your feelings because they might manifest into something worse later on.”
Understanding emotions starts with identifying what is causing them, Hall said. Differentiating between hormone-caused problems and deeper mental problems, she said, is important. Doing this is “not always easy, as they can show up in similar ways,” she admits, “however, symptoms of mental illness tend to be expressed in more extreme ways and typically last for longer periods of time.”
Hall said it’s still important to treat and manage those “normal teenage issues.” Strategies might include exercise, spending time in nature or breathing deeply, as well as “observing negative thinking loops and choosing to reframe, and offering self-compassion,” she said.
But what about mental illness?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4.4 million teens have been diagnosed with anxiety and 1.9 million with depression. Genetics, trauma — and sometimes nothing at all — can spark mental illness.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes common symptoms of depression as feeling sad and hopeless a lot of the time, showing self-destructive tendencies or not enjoying or wanting to participate in things that used to be fun. Changes in sleep patterns and trouble paying attention also are common.
Signs of anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, can include restlessness, irritability, trouble concentrating and a constant state of feeling worried or scared.
Again, “identifying one’s feelings and expressing them is an important first step,” Doerwald said.
“Ask for help! Making sense of our stories, repairing our ruptured relationships and finding ways to manage our moods inside of us is essential for being mentally healthy,” she said.
When symptoms begin to last for longer periods of time, teens should seek treatment, Doerwald said.
Parra said in her case, she had felt sad for multiple days at a time, rarely experiencing a positive change in her mood.
“This is when I finally reached out to my parents and things began getting better,” she said.
The stigma around mental health has shrunk in recent years as more people open up about it. Celebrities such as Ryan Reynolds, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Dwayne Johnson and Prince Harry have all come out and openly discussed mental health and their struggles with it, helping to normalize the issue and let others know that they are not alone.
Mental health plays a huge role in one’s quality of life: Emotions, actions, motivation and productivity are directly affected by it. Anyone can experience mental illness in their lifetime, and it is important to reach out and get help.
If you or someone you know needs help, there are multiple resources available. A first step for many teens could be to visit their school counselor. Another option is The Sky Center of the New Mexico Suicide Intervention Project, 4164 S. Meadows Road. For immediate help, call or text the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255.