The Importance of Early Intervention: Mental Health and Adolescents

Written by Clinical Psychologist Natasha Hebert

During adolescence young people experience hormonal and physical changes. Cognitive, emotional, social and realtionship changes also happen during this period. Making it a tricky period for most teenagers to navigate. Common stressors adolescents experience are body image, bullying, academic pressure, changing dynamics and expectations within the family, and social media.

‘Adolescents aren’t always good at communicating their difficulties, and some just don’t want to worry their family and friends.’

Family and friends can be buffers for these stressors and build resilience in young people. But some teenagers don’t have strong supports networks and may feel isolated. Adolescents aren’t always good at communicating their difficulties, and some just don’t want to worry their family and friends. Another issue is, family and friends may unintentionally fall into unhelpful ways of managing the young person’s distress. This can be invalidating their concerns (“it is fine”, “toughen up”, “you’ll be right!”), or take on an overprotective roll and ‘shield’ them from the stressors entirely (e.g. taking their responsibilities for them, pulling them out of stressful situations). Both approaches, although well intentioned, can prevent teenagers from developing the skills needed to navigate such stressors and build emotional resilience. It can reinforce unhelpful beliefs like ‘the world is a scary place and I can’t handle it’.

If the intensity and duration of a stressor outweighs a young person’s coping resources (internal and/or external), they may develop difficulties such as ongoing anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, or self-harm behaviour. If not attended to, symptoms and difficulties may persist into adulthood. Unfortunately, unhelpful patterns of thinking can develop, and without intervention can become habits.

The good news is that there are evidence based treatments for children and adolescents. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has a good success rate for many mental health concerns. CBT generally involves shifting unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving to reduce symptoms and distress. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is also an effective therapy for the treatment of emotional distress and associated risky behaviour. Treatment focuses on balancing acceptance and change strategies, and is skills based to help manage emotional, behavioural and interpersonal difficulties.

If you or an adolescent you know is struggling with mental health difficulties, an experienced clinical psychologist can help get to the underlying causes of distress and develop an individually tailored treatment plan. Early warning signs that an adolescent may be experiencing mental health concerns include tearfulness/crying, change in appetite and/or eating (eating more or less than usual), anger/outbursts, isolating, loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy, excessive reassurance seeking, avoidance behaviours, changes in sleep, and/or a general change in character. Early intervention can prevent ongoing distress, help repair relationships, and provide a safe, supportive environment to facilitate resilience and coping.


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