Understanding the Causes of Teenage Mental Health Problems

Understanding the Causes of Teenage Mental Health Problems
Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD

Teenage mental health is in crisis. A 2021 report by WHO (the World Health Organization) determined that worldwide, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder and that these conditions go largely unrecognised and untreated.1 UNICEF also reports that mental health conditions constitute a major burden of disease for adolescents globally.2

Teenagers with mental health conditions are more vulnerable and have poorer life experiences and outcomes, such as social exclusion, discrimination, stigma, and educational difficulties. Physical health is also compromised.

Alarmingly, research shows that half of all mental health disorders begin by age 14 and 75 per cent start by the time a person is in their mid-20s.3The consequences of this reality are enormous, not just for individuals but also for families, the economy and society.

This blog explores why teenage mental health is suffering so much in the modern world.

Brain development and mental health during adolescence

Multiple factors affect teenage mental health, and many of the decisions, responses and actions taken by teens are influenced by brain development during this formative time.

Throughout adolescence, there is intense brain development. It is a crucial period for mental health. A review of neuroscientific research on brain development during adolescence concluded:

“The high plasticity of the adolescent brain permits environmental influences to exert particularly strong effects on cortical circuitry. While this makes intellectual and emotional development possible, it also opens the door to potentially harmful influences.”4

During adolescence, the brain develops to become more efficient, but heightened neural plasticity leaves young people more open to external influence. Research shows, for example, that “contextual neighbourhood features such as the absence of opportunities for physical activity or an abundance of vaping stores influence adolescents to exhibit health risk behaviours such as sedentary lifestyles and drug use.”5

Commonly diagnosed mental disorders in youth

The five most common mental disorders diagnosed in teenagers are:

  1. Anxiety disorders
  2. Depression
  3. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  4. Substance and alcohol misuse disorders
  5. Eating disorders

Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health issue seen in teenagers.

Factors affecting mental health in teens

Teens develop social and emotional habits critical for mental well-being during this life stage. To ensure healthy development, this needs to happen in protective and supportive environments, including in education (at school or college), at home and in the wider community.

Generally (not just for teens), mental well-being also relies on eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep and exercise, including time away from screens and spending time outdoors. Especially important for teenagers, it is vital they are part of a family that gets along most of the time. Strong and loving family relationships are essential during adolescence.

In combination, all these positive factors and influences help a teenager to grow, build resilience and develop strong relationships. Then, as they grow into adults, they are emotionally equipped to cope with change and embrace life’s challenges.

Changes in the brain during adolescence, along with physical, emotional, and social changes, can make teenagers more vulnerable to mental health disorders. For many, the teenage years are a time of emotional turmoil. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, eating disorders, and even schizophrenia, can emerge.

There is vulnerability during this period of growth and there are many triggers that can negatively influence mental health.

1. Sleep

Teenagers need a lot of sleep, and it is well-researched and understood that sleep deprivation could dramatically affect mental health (for adults too). Sleep problems can be a predictor of future depression. Research shows that if teenagers’ sleep drops to less than six hours per night, they are twice as likely to engage in risky behaviours and aggressive or harmful activities.6

Teens need around nine-to-ten hours of sleep per night, but most teenagers do not get enough sleep. Not getting adequate sleep can lead to irritability, make it difficult to concentrate, and may increase impulsivity. Remember, adolescents are more open to risky behaviours due to brain development during the teenage years. A lack of sleep can make this a more likely occurrence.

2. Tech and the digital age

There are growing concerns that digital technologies and social media exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression in teens. While there are many positive impacts of the virtual world, some studies suggest that social media use among teens contributes to higher rates of self-harm and suicide.

At the recent inquest of the suicide of a UK schoolgirl, Molly Russell, the coroner concluded that she died from “an act of self-harm whilst suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content.”7

Undoubtedly, social media has made it easier for children and teenagers to access unsuitable content and fall victim to bullying. Bullies can now harass and stalk their victims digitally and easily spread malicious gossip. With screens accessible to some 24/7, it has made it impossible for victims to get respite.

3. Parenting

Research shows that parenting style has an impact on teenage mental health.8 Parental rejection and overprotection can negatively affect adolescent mental health and influence self-esteem. Negative and overprotective parenting can lead to psychological inflexibility (the teenager finds it difficult to be present and uses avoidant coping styles). 

Many parents ease off on parenting during the teenage years, assuming their teenager is grown-up enough to deal with problems and hasn’t a worry in the world. But far from being carefree, most adolescents experience a life of emotional ups and downs.

Therefore, keeping good boundaries in place during the teenage years is just as important as during any other stage of a child’s development. Stability in the family setting and parental emotional warmth are critical, especially since we know self-esteem is a protective factor in mental health.

Childhood trauma, abuse and neglect, loneliness, discrimination and stigma, poverty and social disadvantage, privilege and unrealistic expectations, pressure to conform, disrupted routines, and exposure to adversity can all have lasting effects on a child’s mental health.

4. Diet and nutrition

A healthy balanced diet is important throughout life and is particularly important during childhood and adolescence, a time of growth and development. A good diet correlates with more balanced mental health and fewer instances of anxiety and depression. Research shows, for example, that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher occurrence of anxiety and depression.9

During adolescence, teens often feel hungrier and eat more. This is because they are going through a significant growth spurt. While it’s vital you don’t make an issue about what your teenager eats, it is important to model healthy eating and encourage them to choose snacks from healthy food groups.

5. Social, societal and environmental factors

Family, schools, and peer groups influence adolescents’ mental health. During the teenage years, the pressure to conform is a shared experience.

A mammoth task for adolescents is to develop a personal identity. Nearly every teen faces an identity crisis during this formative time. Media, peers, and family views can easily make this a problematic or suppressed experience.

In literature, teenagers presenting with depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and eating disorders, have higher rates of identity-related problems. Studies also show a correlation between the severity of depressive symptoms and identity confusion scores.10

Increasingly, global issues, such as climate change, are affecting youth. The impact of COVID-19 on teenage mental health cannot be underestimated. The war in Ukraine has also exacerbated the rise of mental health problems. All these issues are causing young people to feel less confident about their futures, fuelling higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Seeking help at CALDA

At CALDA, our team of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and complementary practitioners brings extensive experience to the treatment of teenage mental health. 

In addition to the psyche, we treat the body to remedy hormonal or dietary imbalances. Our holistic approach combines a detailed psychiatric diagnosis with a comprehensive clinical chemical analysis. From our comprehensive diagnostics, a personalised program is designed and tailored to the individual.

We dedicate our time and expertise to one client at a time. If your teenager or young adult needs someone to accompany them, we can accommodate your wishes.

Contact us for a private discussion to hear more about our programs and the next steps.


  1. WHO Fact Sheet. 17 Nov 2021. Adolescent Mental Health. [Online: accessed 06 Jan 2023].
  2. UNICEF. Oct 2021. Child Mental Health. [Online: accessed 06 Jan 2023].
  3. Kessler RC, et al. Jun 2005. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry; 62(6):593-602.
  4. Konrad K, Firk C, & Uhlhaas PJ. 21 Jun 2013. Brain development during adolescence: neuroscientific insights into this developmental period. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2013 Jun;110(25):425-31.
  5. Barakat C & Al Anouti, F. 2022. Adolescent Mental Health in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Where Are We and Where Do We Go from Here? In: Adolescent Mental Health in The Middle East and North Africa. Global Perspectives on Health Geography. Springer, Cham.
  6. University of South Australia. 10 Feb 2021. Sleep keeps teens on track for good mental health. ScienceDaily.
  7. Presented by Michael Safi. 11 Oct 2022. Molly Russell: how a teenager’s death put social media on trial. Today in Focus Podcast. The Guardian.
  8. Biao P, et al. 13 Oct 2021. Parenting Style and Adolescent Mental Health: The Chain Mediating Effects of Self-Esteem and Psychological Inflexibility. Frontiers of Psychology.
  9. Coletro HN, et al. Feb 2022. Ultra-processed and fresh food consumption and symptoms of anxiety and depression during the COVID – 19 pandemic: COVID Inconfidentes. Clin Nutr ESPEN. 2022 Feb;47:206-214.
  10. Demir B, et al. 2010. Sense of identity and depression in adolescents. The Turkish Journal of Pediatrics. 2010 Jan-Feb; 52: 68-72.