Mental Health
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Your Teenager: Just Moody or Something More?
January 2023 ~ Happy new year!
Physical health and mental health are connected and equally important, yet open conversation around mental health is still lagging, most often due to stigma, lack of knowledge, or both.
70% of individuals living with a mental illness reported that their symptoms began before the age of 18. This emphasizes the importance of talking about mental health. Normalizing the conversation about mental health empowers young people to share their experiences and ask for help if they need. By avoiding the conversations  we add to the stigma that surrounds it.

This Snapshot focuses on anxiety and depression, two of the more common mental health concerns for teens.

What is Anxiety?
Anxiety happens because the the part of the brain called the amygdala thinks there is something it needs to protect you from. When this happens, it surges your body with a mix of neurochemicals designed to make you stronger, faster, and more alert so you can fight, or run for your life. This is the fight or flight response. It’s normal and healthy and it’s in everyone. In people with anxiety, it’s just a little quicker to activate.
The amygdala acts on impulse and can’t always tell the difference between something that might hurt you (like a baseball coming at your head) and something that won’t (like walking into a party) – and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is keep you safe. 

But when there’s nothing to flee or nothing to fight, there’s nothing to burn the neurochemical fuel that is surging through you. The fuel builds up and that’s why anxiety feels the way it does. 
Anxiety in Teens
Anxiety is very common in the teenage years. This is because adolescence is a time of emotional, physical and social change, which is happening at the same time as teenage brains are changing. Teens are seeking new experiences and more independence and it is natural for them to feel anxious about these changes, opportunities and challenges.
Teens might fear not doing well in school or sports. Or they may be very worried about what other people think about them. It‘s also common for teens to be worried about their bodies.

Some anxious teens have been struggling for a long time, but as they focus more on their peers and more is expected of them in high school, the anxiety can become more severe. Other times, kids who weren‘t anxious before will suddenly start being anxious as teens. Social anxiety and panic attacks are two kinds of anxiety that often start in the teenage years.
What Does Anxiety Look Like?
Anxiety is often overlooked because teens are good at hiding their thoughts and feelings. Symptoms of anxiety vary widely but these are some of the behaviors that might be a sign that a youth is anxious:
  • Recurring fears and worries about routine parts of everyday life
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Extreme self-consciousness 
  • Withdrawal from social activity
  • Avoidance of difficult or new situations
  • Chronic complaints about stomachaches or headaches
  • Drop in grades or refusing to go to school
  • Constantly seeking reassurance
  • Sleep problems
  • Substance use (alcohol, vaping, cannabis)
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Anxiety vs Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety exists on a spectrum – some people get it a lot and some people get it a lot less, but we all experience anxiety  at some time in our lives.

If anxiety is just part of being human, how can it also be a disorder? The difference is in what causes the anxiety to occur and how much it impacts quality of life. 

Problematic anxiety is much stronger, lasts longer, and is harder to control than normal anxiety. It can be a real barrier in people's lives and prevent them from pursuing their usual activities. 
Experts note there are two indicators of a potential anxiety disorder. The first is avoidance - refusing to do things or to go places.

The second is extreme distress which may manifest as difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach pains (or other physical symptoms) that don't come from other medical  conditions.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it gets in the way of an individual's ability to participate in day to day life. Specifically, it is important to think about:
  • the amount of anxiety the teen is feeling
  • the level of anxiety
  • how long it's been going on
  • how much the anxiety is getting in the way of how they function
  • how distressing it is for the teen and for the family
When the anxiety happens too often and gets in the way of doing things at home, at school or with friends, it's important to seek help. 
If you think your child is experiencing anxiety  you can talk to their primary care provider and describe the changes that you‘ve noticed in your teen. The  doctor can check to see if there might be medical explanations for your teens changes, and can suggest possible places to find help. 

Anxiety can often lead to depression. A life full of avoidance or worry undermines wellbeing. As anxious kids start doing less and less, their depression grows.
It is estimated that 5-8% of adolescents experience depression. Most adults who have depression report that it started when they were young. This is why it is so important to support and treat young people before they become adults. 

If you're unsure if your teen is depressed or just “being a teenager,” consider how long the symptoms have been going on, how severe they are, and how different your teen is acting from their usual self.

Hormones and stress can explain the occasional bout of teenage angst—but not continuous and unrelenting unhappiness, lethargy, or irritability.

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Signs of Depression
Depression in teens can look very different from depression in adults. The following signs and symptoms are more common in teenagers than in adults:

Irritable or angry mood. Irritability, rather than sadness, is often the predominant mood in depressed teens. A depressed teenager may be grumpy, hostile, easily frustrated, or prone to angry outbursts.
Unexplained aches and pains. Depressed teens frequently complain about ailments such as headaches or stomachaches. If a physical exam does not reveal a medical cause, the pain may indicate depression.

Extreme sensitivity to criticism. Depressed teens are plagued by feelings of worthlessness, making them extremely vulnerable to criticism, rejection, and failure.

Withdrawing from some, but not all people. While adults tend to isolate themselves, teenagers usually keep a few friendships. However, they may socialize less, pull away from parents, or start hanging out with a different crowd.
Some additional signs may include:
  • Frequent crying due to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
  • Poor attendance at school, a drop in grades, or frustration with schoolwork in a formerly good student.
  • Loss of interest in activities. They may quit a sports team or hobby or withdraw from family and friends.
  • Many depressed teens run away from home or talk about running away. 
  • Use of alcohol or drugs in an attempt to self-medicate their depression.
  • Excessive online activity to try and escape their problems.
  • Depression can trigger and intensify feelings of ugliness, shame, failure, and unworthiness.
  • Engaging in dangerous or high-risk behaviors, such as reckless driving, binge drinking, or unsafe sex.
  • Spend more time sleeping than usual, or conversely, experience insomnia. They  may also eat more or less than normal.
By definition, clinical depression is when symptoms last for at least two weeks.
3 Ways to Help a Depressed Teen
1. Encourage social connection. Isolation only makes depression worse, so do what you can to help your teen stay connected. Encourage them to go out with friends, invite friends over, or participate in activities that involve other families.

Set aside time each day to talk when you're focused totally on your teen, without distractions. The act of connecting face to face can play a big role in reducing a...

If depression signs and symptoms cause you to have concerns about suicide or your teen's safety, talk to a doctor or a mental health professional trained to work with adolescents. You can also start by connecting to a school counsellor. 
January School Poster
This poster offers teens some affirmations that can be useful in managing anxiety.

Anxious thoughts can be overwhelming and make it difficult to focus on more positive possibilities. Affirmations can help counter the feelings of panic, stress, and self-doubt that often accompany anxiety. 

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The content provided through the Snapshots is for information purposes only. The Snapshots include information that is general in nature and cannot address the many individual child rearing challenges parents and caregivers may experience. Therefore it is the readers‘ responsibility to determine the suitability of the information for their specific needs.

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