Adolescent mental health: Everything you should know

Key facts

  • One in six people are aged 10–19 years.
  • Mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10–19 years.
  • Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated (1).
  • Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds.
  • The consequences of not addressing adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.

Introduction

Adolescence (1019 years) is a unique and formative time. Multiple physical, emotional and social changes, including exposure to poverty, abuse, or violence, can make adolescents vulnerable to mental health problems. Promoting psychological well-being and protecting adolescents from adverse experiences and risk factors that may impact their potential to thrive are critical for their well-being during adolescence and for their physical and mental health in adulthood.

Mental health determinants

Adolescence is a crucial period for developing and maintaining social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. These include adopting healthy sleep patterns; taking regular exercise; developing coping, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills; and learning to manage emotions. Supportive environments in the family, at school and in the wider community are also important. An estimated 1020% of adolescents globally experience mental health conditions, yet these remain underdiagnosed and undertreated (1).

Multiple factors determine mental health outcomes. The more risk factors adolescents are exposed to, the greater the potential impact on their mental health. Factors that can contribute to stress during adolescence include a desire for greater autonomy, pressure to conform with peers, exploration of sexual identity, and increased access to and use of technology. Media influence and gender norms can exacerbate the disparity between an adolescent’s lived reality and their perceptions or aspirations for the future. Other important determinants include the quality of their home life and relationships with peers. Violence (including harsh parenting and bullying) and socioeconomic problems are recognized risks to mental health. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, which has a clear association with detrimental mental health.

Some adolescents are at greater risk of mental health conditions due to their living conditions, stigma, discrimination or exclusion, or lack of access to quality support and services. These include adolescents living in humanitarian and fragile settings; adolescents with chronic illness, autism spectrum disorder, an intellectual disability or other neurological condition; pregnant adolescents, adolescent parents, or those in early and/or forced marriages; orphans; and adolescents from minority ethnic or sexual backgrounds or other discriminated groups.

Adolescents with mental health conditions are in turn particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination, stigma (affecting readiness to seek help), educational difficulties, risk-taking behaviours, physical ill-health and human rights violations.

Mental illness

Emotional disorders

Emotional disorders commonly emerge during adolescence. In addition to depression or anxiety, adolescents with emotional disorders can also experience excessive irritability, frustration or anger. Symptoms can overlap across more than one emotional disorder with rapid and unexpected changes in mood and emotional outbursts. Younger adolescents may additionally develop emotion-related physical symptoms such as stomach ache, headache or nausea.

Globally, depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents aged 15–19 years and fifteenth for those aged 10–14 years. Anxiety is the ninth leading cause for adolescents aged 15–19 years and sixth for those aged 10–14 years. Emotional disorders can profoundly affect areas like schoolwork and school attendance. Social withdrawal can exacerbate isolation and loneliness. At its worse, depression can lead to suicide.

Childhood behavioural disorders

Childhood behavioural disorders are the second leading cause of disease burden in young adolescents aged 10–14 years and the eleventh leading cause among older adolescents aged 15–19 years. Childhood behavioural disorders include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (characterized by difficulty paying attention, excessive activity and acting without regards to consequences, which are otherwise not appropriate for a person’s age), and conduct disorder (with symptoms of destructive or challenging behaviour). Childhood behavioural disorders can affect adolescents’ education and may result in criminal behaviour.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders commonly emerge during adolescence and young adulthood. Eating disorders affect females more commonly than males. Conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are characterised by harmful eating behaviours such as restricting calories or binge eating.  data-sf-ec-immutable=””>Eating disorders are detrimental to health and often co-exist with depression, anxiety and/or substance misuse.

Psychosis

Conditions that include symptoms of psychosis most commonly emerge in late adolescence or early adulthood. Symptoms can include hallucinations or delusions. These experiences can impair an adolescent’s ability to participate in daily life and education and often lead to stigma or human rights violations.

Suicide and self-harm

An estimated 62 000 adolescents died in 2016 as a result of self-harm.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death in older adolescents (15–19 years). Nearly 90% of the world’s adolescents live in low-or middle-income countries and more than 90% of adolescent suicides are among adolescents living in those countries. Risk factors for suicide are multifaceted, including harmful use of alcohol, abuse in childhood, stigma against help-seeking, barriers to accessing care and access to means. Communication through digital media about suicidal behaviour is an emerging concern for this age group.

Risk-taking behaviours

Many risk-taking behaviours for health, such as substance use or sexual risk taking, start during adolescence. Risk-taking behaviours can be both an unhelpful strategy to cope with poor mental health and can severely impact an adolescent’s mental and physical well-being.

Worldwide, the prevalence of episodic drinking among adolescents aged 15­–19 years was 13.6% in 2016, with males most at risk.

The use of tobacco and cannabis are additional concerns. In 2016, based on data available from 130 countries, it was estimated that 5.6% of 15–16-year-olds had used cannabis at least once in the preceding year (2). Many adult smokers have their first cigarette prior to the age of 18 years.

Perpetration of violence is a risk-taking behaviour that can increase the likelihood of low educational attainment, injury, involvement with crime or death. Interpersonal violence was ranked the second leading cause of death of older adolescent boys in 2016.

Promotion and prevention

Mental health promotion and prevention interventions aim to strengthen individuals’ capacity to regulate emotions, enhance alternatives to risk-taking behaviours, build resilience into difficult situations and adversities, and promote supportive social environments and social networks.

These programmes require a multilevel approach with varied delivery platforms – for example, digital media, health or social care settings, schools or the community, and varied strategies to reach adolescents, particularly the most vulnerable ones.

Early detection and treatment

It is crucial to address the needs of adolescents with defined mental health conditions. Avoiding institutionalization and over-medicalization, prioritizing nonpharmacological approaches, and respecting the rights of children in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights instruments are key for adolescents. WHO’s mental health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) provides evidence-based guidelines for non-specialists to enable them to better identify and support priority mental health conditions in lower-resourced settings.

WHO response

WHO works on strategies, programmes and tools to assist governments in responding to the health needs of adolescents. Key resources are:

In the context of emergencies, WHO has developed tools for:

all of which consider issues related to young people.



(1) Kessler RC, Angermeyer M, Anthony JC, et al. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders in the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative. World Psychiatry 2007; 6: 168–76.

(2) World Drug Report 2018; executive summary, conclusions and policy implications. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. UNODC Research; 2018, Sales No. E.18.XI.9: 12 (https://www.unodc.org/wdr2018/en/exsum.html).