Teen mental health: Signs to look for and strategies to help

by Kaiser Permanente |
Parent and teen talk about mental health on a couch.

It’s important for young people to hear that anxiety, stress, and negative emotions are completely normal, especially in hard times. And times are hard for many. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2021, more than 4 in 10 high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless. Almost a third experienced poor mental health, and the findings were even worse for LGBTQ+, Black, and female students.1 But teens also need to hear that there’s always hope. And just one positive relationship with an adult can help kids build resilience.2

"More and more teens are aware of mental health as a real issue they face in their daily lives," says Michael Torres, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente Mental Health and Wellness Center in San Leandro, California. "It’s vital that all of us who support young people are equipped to talk about mental health issues."

You can start making a difference in a young person’s mental health in a few key ways.

Know the signs

Mental health symptoms are manageable, with early care and support from trusted adults. That’s why it’s important to recognize signs and symptoms of depression in teens, like:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, or worry
  • Avoiding social interactions or things they loved doing before
  • Falling behind in school
  • Signs of self-harm
  • Talking about suicide or harming others

Not every teen experiences the same symptoms. But dramatic changes in behavior are usually worth discussing. The first step in any case is keeping the lines of communication open, says Janice Schneider, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and adolescent psychology specialist at Southern California Permanente Medical Group in Los Angeles. Maintain that connection so that teens feel open to support.

Talk often and honestly

It’s important to make time to talk with your teen on a regular basis. Schneider recommends setting aside "no phone" time, especially at the dinner table or before bed. Show that you’re interested in talking, even if your teen doesn’t always want to. Be flexible — if they feel comfortable and are ready to talk, they’ll come to you.

"Don’t pressure them," Torres adds. "Let them know that you love them, you’re there to support them, and you’re not there to judge."

Once you’re talking, respect them enough to be yourself. It’s one of the most important steps in building trust. "Being totally authentic is essential, especially when talking to teens," Torres says. "They’ll quickly learn to ignore anything you have to say if they feel you’re not being honest and real. But if you’re authentic, you’re communicating respect."

"Hear what they have to say without judgment, and don’t go right into ‘fix it’ mode," Schneider says. "Show empathy. If they know you’re trying to understand where they’re coming from, that will lead to more communication."

Provide tools for self-care

Encourage the teen in your life to practice self-care. Help them find a healthy outlet for their emotions.

Exercise, especially, has health benefits beyond physical fitness. As little as 20 to 25 minutes of moderate activity a day can help protect against symptoms of depression.3 Teens can also try things like:

  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Journaling or making art
  • Talking with a trusted friend
  • Listening to music
  • Watching something fun on television — especially as a family or with friends

Teens should also get 8 to 9 hours of sleep a night when possible, and rest whenever they can. Building a nighttime routine without screens can help, says Schneider. And that goes for adults, too.

"It’s important we walk the walk," Torres says. "Kids can absorb our anxiety. So let’s be kind to ourselves. We can be the best examples of the benefits of good self-care."

Teens also have access to many safe, confidential self-care apps, like Calm and myStrength.4,5 These apps can help lower stress and be a source for emotional support whenever teens need it.

Ask for help

If you’re struggling to relate to a young person’s emotions or their condition seems more serious, it could be time to get help. If it’s someone else’s child, gently let their guardian know what you’ve noticed. If it’s your child, call your pediatrician or a mental health specialist. If health care is a barrier, you could also reach out to the counselor or psychologist at your child’s school.

"There’s no shame in this," Torres says. "It’s the best thing you could do for your child. You’re getting them the specialized help they need, the same way you would take them to an eye doctor if their vision was blurry."

If you ever fear for the immediate safety of a young person, call your local medical office for crisis care. "They can guide you through the steps to take to ensure your child’s safety and how to access the best and most appropriate intervention available," Torres says. "During this process, you can also be direct with your teen and ask them, ‘Are you feeling like hurting yourself?’ If the answer is yes, call 911 or take your teen to the nearest emergency room."

For more support, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 (TTY 711) or visit 988lifeline.org to get free, confidential help from a trained crisis counselor.

Learn more ways to talk with kids about mental health

It’s never too early to help a young person with their emotional well-being. For more tips and tools, visit kp.org/youthmentalhealth.

If you believe you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. For the complete definition of an emergency medical condition, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or other coverage documents.

1 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report, 2011–2021, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023.

2 Nicole Spector, "How to Talk to Your Kids About Their Mental Health," NBCNews.com, May 20, 2019.

3 Felipe B. Schuch, PhD, et al., "Physical Activity and Incident Depression: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies," The American Journal of Psychiatry, April 25, 2018.

4 Calm and myStrength can be used by members 13 and over.

5 The apps described above are not covered under your health plan benefits and are not subject to the terms set forth in your Evidence of Coverage or other plan documents. These apps may be discontinued at any time without notice.