Teenagers in 2020 and Why We Need to Talk About Their Mental Health

We are in the middle of chaos right now and there is no longer a “normal”. 2020 has brought change and awareness- both good and bad. It has both divided us and united us, and until we come out on the other side, we will not know the lasting effects it will have on mental health.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a psychological toll on people of all ages, but especially teenagers. Add to that the entrenchment in discussions about racism, inequality, police brutality and politics and it is easy to see why they would feel so distressed. As a Licensed Psychotherapist who specializes in working with teenagers, I see it every day. And as a mom with two teenagers of my own, I feel it every day. The past several months has been a roller coaster ride for teens and while some are just along for the ride, others are holding on for dear life.

I hear it in my office—anxiety and stress, uncertainty, fear, worry, depression, isolation, and loneliness. These can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions that can make teenagers feel discouraged, distraught, and disconnected. This can affect their sleep, ability to concentrate, thought process, motivation, and energy level. It can promote risky behaviors in teenagers, cause suicidal ideations and self-harming thoughts. It can lead to substance abuse, eating disorders and withdrawal from those they love.

Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to saying, “I’m not okay”. If our injury is external like a broken arm or busted lip, people tell their story: how it happened, what they felt, who helped them, what hurts, etc. And people want to hear. But when it comes to mental health, people get quiet, especially teenagers. They don’t share their feelings, their pain, or their needs. They hold their emotions inside because they feel judged or shamed to admit they are struggling, as if it is their fault. They pretend everything is okay, put a fake smile on their face, post a happy picture and suffer in silence. Teenagers often feel alone and wonder why they are the only ones who are not happy. Everyone else’s Instagram or Snapchat looks so positive, upbeat, and happy. Sadly, they often assume that something is wrong with them, they are broken, and they do not matter. They can feel heavy on the inside, dark, sad, and alone.

The most powerful thing we can do is normalize their emotions, empathize with their struggles, and let them know they are not alone. That is how the video “I Am a Teenager” was birthed.

We realized the strong need for teenagers to hear from their peers, their teammates, and their classmates. They needed to hear their feelings—whatever they were experiencing—were valid. They needed to know that it’s okay to not be okay and that they matter. They needed to know that speaking up and sharing their feelings takes bravery and courage and reduces the stigma of silence around these issues.

What makes the video so powerful is that it is their words, written by and for teenagers from around the country. It is their feelings, their thoughts, their struggles, and their voice. It is a message that needs to be shared and promoted so teenagers know that it is okay to reach out and there is nothing weak about asking for help.

If we stop and listen, we hear the message loud and clear. Teenagers want to be heard. They do not want to be dismissed or judged. They want to be supported and loved, regardless of how they are feeling. They do not want to be told to get over it or that it is just a phase. They do not want to be ignored or to pretend that everything is wonderful, when it is not. They want to be reassured that they are not the only ones who deal with these issues and there is nothing wrong with them for feeling this way. Most important, they want to know they are not alone.

As supportive adults our role in helping teenagers is vital. We need to model healthy habits and self-care. We must remind our young people that mental health is just as important as physical health. We want our teenagers know that their emotions are not a burden to us, or they are not bothering us if they need a good cry or to vent their feelings. We need to offer them resources if they need a place outside the home to talk—a counselor, a trusted family member, a youth pastor, a support group.

We need to encourage good sleep, a balanced diet, daily movement, or exercise, and helping them set a schedule or routine. We need to erase the stigma by increasing the awareness and the respect for people who are struggling. We must watch our chose of words and calling people “crazy” or “psycho” cannot be acceptable.

One in five teenagers live with a mental health condition. That means more teenagers that we think are struggling with a mental health challenge right now and many do not know what to do. Show them the “I Am a Teenager” video. Open the lines of conversation about how they are feeling. Listen. Don’t interrupt. Ask how you can help. Offer a hug. Let them know they are not alone and that you care. Give them information and resources they need to support each other. Empower them to speak up. Value their voice.

Right now, more than ever before, we must tune in to the teenagers around us and their mental health. We need to slow down long enough to hear them and make space for whatever they are feeling. We must have conversations with our teenagers, even if it seems awkward, about what to do if they do not feel okay. We need to love them, even if they are irritable and grouchy. We must realize their brains hurt and they are under a tremendous amount of pressure and stress to be more and do more. We have to let them rest, encourage them to play and remind them to laugh. We must let them be teenagers: imperfect, quirky, weird, magical, amazing human beings learning their way in the world and figuring out who they are through trial and error. We must see them, hear them, and love them unconditionally.

“I Am a Teenager” is for everyone. Teenagers, parents, teachers, coaches, friends. It is a great tool to start important conversations and to open up dialogue about mental health. The message is loud and clear: I am a teenager and my mental health matters.