Mental health issues affect one in three high school students and the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled a rise in poor mental health among this age group.
This blog examines the top five mental health conditions experienced by high school students and includes tips for parents to support their child’s mental health.
Mental health is a growing problem in high schools
More than one in three high school students have experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2021 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over 37% of students reported suffering from stress, anxiety or depression during the pandemic and 44% said they felt “so persistently sad and hopeless that they were unable to engage in their regular activities.”
Jonathan Mermin, Director of the CDC’s National Center that addresses school-based health explained how this causes far-reaching harms: “We know from other research that youth with poor mental health are more likely to struggle with school and grades, decision making and their physical health.”
Top 5 mental health challenges
The top five mental health challenges facing high school students are anxiety, depression, stress, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders.
High school students see anxiety as a significant issue. A survey found that 70% of teens say anxiety (and depression) is a “major problem” among their peers, and an additional 26% say it is a minor problem. Only 4% feel it is “not a problem”.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes, like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns.”
Here are some of the most common types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder
Find out more about the 6 Types of Anxiety Disorders.
Most high school students experience anxiety from time to time. However, when ongoing feelings of worry, tension and panic interfere with day-to-day life, anxiety becomes a condition that needs mental health counseling.
Signs of anxiety
Anxiety can be overlooked by parents because high school students are good at hiding their thoughts and feelings. The Child Mind Institute has identified these symptoms of anxiety in teenagers:
- Recurring fears and worries about everyday life
- Difficulty concentrating
- Extreme self-consciousness or sensitivity to criticism
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Refusing to go to school
- Avoiding new or difficult situations
- Regularly complaining about stomach aches or headaches
- Drop in academic performance
- Seeking repeated reassurance from others
- Sleep issues – sleeping more or less than usual
- Substance use as a coping mechanism.
Depression is a common mental health disorder that currently affects one in four youth globally — double pre-pandemic estimates. According to the World Health Organization, depression “is characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest or pleasure in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities.”
Among high school students, depression can be linked to several factors including performance anxiety about academic and/or sporting achievements, and peer pressure to feel accepted and valued by friends – both online and face to face.
Depression is a main cause of suicide among young people. It can also trigger issues such as substance abuse, gambling addiction or gaming disorder if teens turn to drugs or alcohol, or gamble or game excessively, to escape their negative thoughts. Other mental health conditions that sometimes co-exist with depression include stress, anxiety and ADHD.
Signs of depression
Some high schoolers will try to hide depression or suicidal thoughts which can make it more difficult to notice the warning signs. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), symptoms of depression include:
- Changes in sleep habits (sleeping more or less frequently than usual)
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Feelings of sadness, powerlessness and, in more serious cases, feelings of hopelessness
- Increased pessimism – seeing the glass half empty instead of half full
- Problems concentrating and paying attention
- Difficulty reading and accomplishing tasks.
Find out more about the 6 Types of Depression.
The American Psychological Association (APA) conducts an annual ‘Stress in America’ survey and since 2013, teens have reported higher levels of stress than adults. The APA
describes stress as “the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors. Stress involves changes affecting nearly every system of the body, influencing how people feel and behave.”
Most teenagers experience stress from time to time. It is a normal reaction to everyday life. Plus, adolescence is a period of hormonal changes which can affect their moods and behavior. Stress can also be brought on by a variety of other factors including the pressure to perform well at school, project the perfect image on social media and manage perceived expectations from friends, parents, teachers or sports coaches.
Stress has been associated with several mental health disorders in high school students such as anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, PTSD and personality disorders.
Signs of stress
Parents can sometimes be unaware when their child is feeling overwhelmed by stress. Knowing what look out for is important in identifying potential problems. According to the APA, warning signs include:
- Irritability and moodiness
- Withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy
- Regulaly expressing worries
- Complaining more than usual about school
- Crying and/or having fearful reactions
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Eating too much or too little
- Frequent stomach aches or headaches.
Find out more about the 30 Signs of Stress: Effects, Causes and Treatment.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental health conditions affecting children. An estimated 8.4% of children have ADHD.
During the high school years, ADHD can affect a student’s ability to listen, concentrate, complete schoolwork and balance other activities. ADHD also can make a student restless and disruptive in lessons. Teens with ADHD might also have learning disabilities that cause them to underachieve at school which can have negative long-term consequences.
ADHD often co-exists with other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Signs of ADHD
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the signs of ADHD include
- Inattention (not being able to keep focus)
- Hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting)
- Impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought).
There are three types of ADHD: inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type and combined type. See the APA website for the symptoms of each type.
5. Eating disorders
A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders found that 11% of high school students have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “eating disorders are abnormal eating habits that can threaten your health or even your life.”
Here are the most common eating disorders:
- Anorexia nervosa – sufferers restrict their eating to the point of starvation.
- Bulimia nervosa – people consume excessive quantities of food, which they purge by making themselves vomit or using laxatives.
- Binge eating disorder – bouts of out-of-control eating without purging. Find out more about Binge Eating Disorder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment.
Eating disorders often co-exist with other mental health conditions such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and substance abuse.
If left untreated, eating disorders can be life-threatening and cause serious health issues such as heart or kidney problems and reproductive issues.
Signs of an eating disorder
Eating disorder symptoms can vary depending on whether it is anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder and the mental state of the individual. However, there are several common warning signs including:
- Distorted or poor body image
- Frequent dieting
- Food rituals
- Refusing to eat certain foods
- Missing meals or taking small portions at regular mealtimes
- Feeling uncomfortable eating in public
- Constantly making excuses for eating habits
- Withdrawing from friends and activities
- Extreme mood swings.
For a full list of eating disorder signs and symptoms, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website.
How parents can support their child’s mental health
Here are 10 ways that parents can positively support their child’s mental health:
- Keep lines of communication open.
- Make sure they feel loved, accepted and secure.
- Model good habits.
- Look out for any changes in behavior.
- Talk openly about mental health.
- Give positive feedback and encouragement.
- Set clear boundaries at home.
- Spend time enjoying shared activities.
- Get involved in school-related activities and homework.
- Seek professional help, if necessary.
Get expert help
If you child is displaying some of the symptoms described in this article, it does not necessarily mean they have a mental health condition. However, if the symptoms increase in severity or start to interfere with your child’s relationships or schoolwork, it is time to seek mental health therapy.
At Kindbridge, our fully licensed counselors use the latest evidence-based practices to deliver the most successful outcomes. We can remotely diagnose these five common types of mental health conditions – and any co-occurring issues – and provide high-quality online therapy from the comfort of your home.Get started today by booking a free 30-minute consultation.