Adolescent mental health
Globally, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder, accounting for 13% of the global burden of disease in this age group.
Key facts of adolescent mental health
One in six people are aged 10-19 years. Adolescence is a unique and formative time. Physical, emotional and social changes, including exposure to poverty, abuse, or violence, can make adolescents vulnerable to mental health problems. Protecting adolescents from adversity, promoting socio-emotional learning and psychological well-being, and ensuring access to mental health care are critical for their health and well-being during adolescence and adulthood.
Globally, it is estimated that 1 in 7 (14%) 10-19 year-olds experience mental health conditions, yet these remain largely unrecognized and untreated.
Adolescents with mental health conditions are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination, stigma (affecting readiness to seek help), educational difficulties, risk-taking behaviors, physical ill-health and human rights violations.
Mental health determinants
Adolescence is a crucial period for developing social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. These include adopting healthy sleep patterns; exercising regularly; developing coping, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills; and learning to manage emotions. Protective and supportive environments in the family, at school and in the wider community are important.
Some adolescents are at greater risk of mental health conditions due to their living conditions, stigma, discrimination or exclusion, or lack of access to quality support and services. These include adolescents living in humanitarian and fragile settings; adolescents with chronic illness, autism spectrum disorder, an intellectual disability or other neurological condition; pregnant adolescents, adolescent parents, or those in early or forced marriages; orphans; and adolescents from minority ethnic or sexual backgrounds or other discriminated groups.
Emotional disorders are common among adolescents. Anxiety disorders (which may involve panic or excessive worry) are the most prevalent in this age group and are more common among older than among younger adolescents. It is estimated that 3.6% of 10-14 year-olds and 4.6% of 15-19 year-olds experience an anxiety disorder. Depression is estimated to occur among 1.1% of adolescents aged 10-14 years, and 2.8% of 15-19-year-olds. Depression and anxiety share some of the same symptoms, including rapid and unexpected changes in mood.
Anxiety and depressive disorders can profoundly affect school attendance and schoolwork. Social withdrawal can exacerbate isolation and loneliness. Depression can lead to suicide.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, commonly emerge during adolescence and young adulthood. Eating disorders involve abnormal eating behavior and preoccupation with food, accompanied in most instances by concerns about body weight and shape. Anorexia nervosa can lead to premature death, often due to medical complications or suicide, and has higher mortality than any other mental disorder.
Conditions that include symptoms of psychosis most commonly emerge in late adolescence or early adulthood. Symptoms can include hallucinations or delusions. These experiences can impair an adolescent’s ability to participate in daily life and education and often lead to stigma or human rights violations.
Suicide and Self-Harm
Many risk-taking behaviors for health, such as substance use or sexual risk-taking, start during adolescence. Risk-taking behaviors can be an unhelpful strategy to cope with emotional difficulties and can severely impact an adolescent’s mental and physical well-being.
Worldwide, the prevalence of heavy episodic drinking among adolescents aged 15-19 years was 13.6% in 2016, with males most at risk.
The use of tobacco and cannabis are additional concerns. Many adult smokers had their first cigarette prior to the age of 18 years. Cannabis is the most widely used drug among young people with about 4.7% of 15-16 years-olds using it at least once in 2018.
Perpetration of violence is a risk-taking behavior that can increase the likelihood of low educational attainment, injury, involvement with crime or death. Interpersonal violence was ranked among the leading causes of death of older adolescent boys in 2019.
Promotion and prevention
Mental health promotion and prevention interventions aim to strengthen an individual’s capacity to regulate emotions, enhance alternatives to risk-taking behaviors, build resilience for managing difficult situations and adversity, and promote supportive social environments and social networks.
These programs require a multi-level approach with varied delivery platforms – for example, digital media, health or social care settings, schools or the community – and varied strategies to reach adolescents, particularly the most vulnerable.
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