On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness information for all Oklahomans, published three times a week.

Sharpening Iron: Mental Health and Development in Oklahoma Teens

Adolescence is one of the most rapid phases in human development, and these years are some of the most formative in a person’s life. Today’s teens are exposed to infinite images and messages – often confusing or conflicting – from their peers, from television, the internet and especially on social media, where truth and intention can be misleading or filtered. When you couple typical teen issues with more serious concerns like family problems, substance abuse, anxiety and depression, it’s no surprise mental health issues are so common in adolescents today.

Teen Brains are Still Growing

Significant brain growth and development occur during adolescence, continuing into a person’s twenties and extending in some cases to age 30. The teen brain is constantly growing and developing, especially the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that comprehends situations and deals with higher-level cognitive abilities like planning, forethought, working memory and impulse control). This explains why teens often struggle with forgetfulness and are more likely to engage in risky behavior without thinking through potential consequences. Forgetting homework and making rash decisions are commonplace among teens, but when stressful circumstances arise, the lack of brain maturity can manifest itself in an inability to cope or rise above negative situations. Angst and loneliness can easily develop into anxiety and depression.

Self-harm, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts can arise as symptoms of deeper mental health issues.

1 in 5 American teens has a diagnosable mental disorder according to the Office of Adolescent Health within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Problem Signs for Teens

  • Avoidance of school or friends
  • Excessively argumentative and defiant
  • Threatening harm to self or others
  • Excessive sleeping or insomnia
  • Abandonment or loss of interest in favorite pastimes
  • Unexpected and dramatic decline in academic performance
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Personality changes that are sharply out of character

Studies show nine percent of Oklahoma teens have had at least one depressive episode, marked by one or more of the following symptoms: low mood, disinterest in normal activities, unusual weight gain or loss, insomnia, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, extreme difficulty concentrating or making decisions, or recurring thoughts of death. In 2013, 27 percent of Oklahoma high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for a long period of time, to the point where they stopped doing normal activities. Across the U.S., that number is 30 percent.

As Iron Sharpens Iron, So One Friend Sharpens Another

While the outlook on teen mental health may seem overwhelmingly negative, the unfortunate truth is that many teens are affected by mental health issues that often go untreated or even unnoticed. Fortunately, there are ways to help implement positive mental health habits like resilience, coping, good judgment and optimism.

As the proverb suggests, as iron sharpens iron, so one friend really can sharpen another. Strong and healthy friendships are absolutely vital for teenagers, as are healthy relationships with parents, peers and teachers. These positive relationships can be built simply by getting involved in an activity, whether in sports, music, clubs or volunteering. Helping your teen find an activity in which he or she shows a genuine interest can help build confidence and alleviate social anxiety.

Healthy physical habits play a key role in mental health as well. Only half of adolescents get the recommended one hour of daily physical activity. A healthy diet also helps nurture greater energy levels and alertness, and adequate sleep is essential for teens as their circadian rhythms shift with later bed times and more taxing night time activities.

Tips for Parents

  • Encourage open lines of communication.

Let your children know they can talk to you about absolutely anything, and be attentive when they do confide in you. Approach touchy subjects with an open mind and foster two-sided dialogue. Let your teen know they are not alone in their anxieties, and be willing to talk about your own fears and anxieties as an adolescent.

  • Encourage your teen to be physically active in a way that suits them.

For more information on activity options in Oklahoma City, read our article on fitness for teens.

  • Be mindful of your teen’s behavior.

Transition and changes are normal components of adolescence, but be mindful of the warning signs mentioned above and seek professional help for your teen if you are alarmed or worried for their safety,

Subscribe to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog

Subscribe for weekly emails full of useful and interesting Oklahoma-centric health and wellness info, from the doctors and health experts at INTEGRIS.