According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one-in-five children between the ages of 13-to-18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness. Teenage years are challenging enough when dealing with normal physical and hormonal changes, along with social and environmental stresses and the desire for more independence. For caregivers, the teen years can be a difficult time to tell the difference between normal teenage behavior and what is a symptom of mental illness.

Here is a checklist of behaviors or signs parents and others can look for in their teen, along with a framework for thinking about them.

Common warning signs of mental illness in teens:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Loss of interest in things they once enjoyed
  • Trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans to do so
  • Out-of-control risk-taking behaviors
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Physical symptoms (frequent body aches, headaches and digestion problems)
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • Drastic changes in behavior, personality or sleeping habits
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or significant changes in school performance
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities

What these signs might mean, and what you should do

Please note that if a teen is experiencing one of these symptoms, it does not mean they are suffering from a mental illness. However, as a caregiver you should never underestimate your intuition. When a teen is experiencing multiple behaviors, or if a behavior increases in intensity and begins to interfere with normal daily activities, action needs to take place. Caregivers should first talk with the teen’s primary care physician to rule out any other possible health issues and to seek a referral for a mental health professional. Caregivers should also involve the teen’s school with any diagnosis so that the teen can get the support they need to succeed in that environment. Furthermore, it is important that caregivers reach out to others families experiencing similar challenges. There is comfort in knowing you are not alone.

Get educated

Education is important as well. NAMI Eastside provides a Basics Class for caregivers of children and teens who have been diagnosed or are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness. Feel free to contact NAMI Eastside for more information about our free educational programs and support groups.


Melissa Graham is a Program Manager and Family-to-Family Facilitator with NAMI Eastside.