It’s been 4 years since the COVID-19 pandemic and mental health issues among teens continue to climb.  Children and adolescents during this time have been exposed to long periods of quarantine, school closures, loss of loved ones, disrupted peer relationships, and the general sense of unpredictability in their everyday lives. According to a poll of 1400 leading health and mental wellness experts, 53% agree that the problem has gotten worse. 35% claim it’s slightly worse and only 2% say that it has significantly improved.  

According to these experts, several factors contribute to the increase in mental health issues among teens and young adults.

  • Social Media - heighten social comparisons, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), harassment.
  • External Events - school shootings, war, political events, drugs and alcohol
  • Social Isolation - restrictions and remote learning limited important social experiences 
  • Lack of skills - cognitive flexibility to adjust to changes in their environment
  • Peer pressure - need to be perfect, college admissions, need to belong

The most significant effects were observed among vulnerable subgroups such as pre-existing mental health problems, physical disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities. According to the CDC, they found that most adolescents experienced negative events during the pandemic which linked to higher chances of poor mental health and suicide attempts. 

In 2021, three-quarters of high school students reported encountering at least one adverse childhood experience, such as physical or emotional abuse, lack of food, or parental job loss. Additionally, instances of electronic bullying, dating violence, and sexual violence were included in these experiences.

Most Common Teen Mental Health Issues

Did you know that in the first eight months of the pandemic, mental health emergencies among 12-to-17-year-olds rose by 31 percent?  In addition, at least half of mental health issues begin at age 14. ADHD, anxiety and behavior problems, and depression are the most common diagnoses for young children and teens. 

According to CDC: (ages 3 - 17)

  • ADHD - approximately 6.0 million (9.8%)
  • Anxiety - approximately 5.8 million (9.4%)
  • Behavior - approximately 5.5 million (8.9%)
  • Depression - approximately 2.7 million (4.4%)

    What to Look For

    We understand our children better than anyone and can identify what is normal versus not normal behavior. We see the obvious signs like mood swings, irritability, anger, and crying.  However, there are subtle times when it's not so obvious. It's essential to approach these signs with care and sensitivity, as each individual's situation is unique.

    • Changes in sleep, weight, eating habits, or other everyday patterns
    • Loss of interest in the things they love or activities they enjoy
    • Withdrawing from friends, family and community
    • Academic struggles that seem different
    • A new set of friends you've never met before
    • Obsession with a certain goal

    Changes in mood, behavior, and other aspects of a teen's life can often be attributed to biological factors like hormone shifts. However, parents and caregivers must recognize when these changes become concerning or persistent. Consistently observing signs such as those you've listed could indicate underlying mental health issues that require attention and support.

    What We Can Do

    Family sitting together and talking

    The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the critical role that schools play in supporting the overall well-being of children and families. Beyond providing education, schools serve as a resource for various essential services that contribute to students' physical, mental, and emotional health. Schools offer opportunities for physical activity through sports programs, recess, and physical education classes, which are vital for promoting healthy lifestyles and preventing obesity and other health issues. 


    • Communicate openly and honestly, and allow them to express their values.
    • Supervise and educate healthy decision-making.
    • Spend time enjoying shared activities.
    • Get involved with school activities and help with homework.
    • Volunteer at their school or team.
    • Communicate regularly with teachers and administrators.


    • Provide and educate mental health services.
    • Training staff.
    • Support mental health staff.
    • Review policies to ensure equity.
    • Build safe and supportive environments.

    What to Consider

    The signs we look for when identifying mental health issues; moodiness, recklessness, and sleeping all day on the weekends can be just annoying teen behavior. But actually, there’s a good chance all of these signs could be caused by the chronic lack of sleep most teens experience.

    When teens consistently fail to get enough sleep, it can lead to a range of issues. Physically, they may experience fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and weakened immune function. Mentally, sleep deprivation can impair cognitive abilities such as memory, problem-solving, and decision-making. Behaviorally, it can manifest as moodiness, irritability, impulsivity, and recklessness.

    The consequences of sleep deprivation extend beyond the individual to impact their interactions with others and their overall safety. Teens who are sleep-deprived may have trouble getting along with adults, experiencing conflicts in relationships, and engaging in risky behaviors such as substance use or reckless driving.

    Recognizing the importance of sleep for teenagers' well-being is crucial. Parents, caregivers, and educators can support teens in establishing healthy sleep habits by promoting consistent bedtimes, creating a clean and healthy sleep environment, and encouraging relaxation techniques before bedtime. By prioritizing adequate sleep, teens can better cope with the challenges of adolescence and thrive in various aspects of their lives.

    Why Is It Hard for Teens to Get Good Sleep?

    According to NSF (National Sleep Foundation), drowsiness and sleep fatigue are the cause of over 100,000 automobile accidents each year. In addition, 60-70 percent of teens live a borderline to severe sleep debt. Here are some reasons why teens don’t get enough sleep.  

    • Delayed Sleep Schedule and School Start Times - A teenager’s body starts producing melatonin later in the day, which can lead to later sleep times.  If allowed, they would sleep from 12 - 8 am however, school starts much earlier so eight hours per night is out the window.

    • Time Demands - Your typical teenager has a jam-packed weekly schedule. Homework, class assignments, work obligations, household chores, social life, community activities, and sports are just some of the things that can require their time and attention. Teens do not allocate sufficient time for sleep. 

    • Use of Electronic Devices - We know and understand.  Teens can’t put their cell phones and tablets down. Screen time late into the evening can contribute to sleeping problems. 75% of teens have at least one electronic device in their bedroom. 60% routinely use a media device before bed. On average, children and teens spend a total of 7.5 hours a day using screens for entertainment, including televisions, computers, and video games.

    • Sleep Disorders - Some teens have poor sleep because of an underlying sleep disorder. Adolescents can be affected by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which causes repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. OSA frequently causes fragmented sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. Though less common, teens can have sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome, which involves a strong urge to move the limbs when lying down, or narcolepsy, which is a disorder affecting the sleep-wake cycle.

    Are drinking and drugs part of the problem?

    Teen substance use is pervasive and can magnify existing mental health challenges. Approximately 15% of high school students have experimented with street drugs like cannabis, cocaine, inhalants, heroin, methamphetamine, hallucinogens, or MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly). Additionally, 14% have misused prescription opioids, nearly 30% have consumed alcohol, and 14% have engaged in binge drinking. Alarmingly, 17% have ridden in a vehicle operated by an intoxicated driver, exposing themselves to heightened risks.

    Substance use is a significant concern in its own right and warrants open discussion with teens, even in the absence of apparent mental health issues. However, when substance use coincides with mental health symptoms, it raises heightened alarm. Often, drinking and drug consumption serve as coping mechanisms for managing challenging emotions or situations, indicating underlying emotional distress that requires attention.

    What to Remember about Mental Health as You Move Forward

    Don’t be ashamed of seeking treatment. It's no different from getting care for a broken bone, a serious infection or any other major health concern.

    Try not to blame yourself for your child's struggles. Just because you have mental health issues yourself, you are not the root cause of your child's difficulties. 

    Show compassion for yourself and your child as you move forward. Create safe environments, provide the necessary support, and practice healthy sleep routines.