Turbulent teens or mental illness?
Wendel Abel I AM WHAT I THINK
It is reported worldwide that one in four young people suffer from a mental illness. However, in many instances, it is very difficult to make the diagnosis in young people, as sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the behaviour associated with the turbulent teens and that of a mental disorder.
What are some of the common features associated with mental illness?
1) Change in behaviour - The individual may become aggressive or withdrawn.
2) Decline in school performance - The child who previously did well has started to underperform in school. This may result in a loss of interest in school, causing the child to drop out of school.
3) Drug use - The drug that causes the most concern for many parents in Jamaica is marijuana or ganja.
4) Poor self-care - The child may begin to neglect personal care. They do not bathe as often and they may neglect to clean their rooms, which have become messy. Neglecting to comb their hair is another cause for concern, and this leaves many parents wondering if the child is becoming a Rastafarian.
5) Social interaction - There may also be a change in the pattern of social interactions. The child may become withdrawn and does not socialise with family members anymore. In some instances they may gravitate towards friends whom the family may consider to be undesirables.
6) Communication is reduced - As a result of the child becoming socially withdrawn, the communication may also be decreased.
7) Family breakdown - Family breakdown may lead to emotional turmoil in young people. In many situations, the problem may be caused by or worsened by family breakdown. There are, however, many instances in which young people develop mental illnesses and there is no major family problem.
8) Strange behaviour - Whenever strange or abnormal behaviour such as cutting and suicidal attempt occurs, this is a major cause for concern. Young persons who have become paranoid and suspicious may have a serious form of mental disorder. Depression is common and whenever a young person reports feeling depressed for a long time this should be taken seriously.
What should parents do?
1) Be vigilant. Look out for changes in your child. If you see early signs that may be worrying, do not panic, but do something.
2) Seek professional help.
You may take your child to see someone whom he or she trusts, but the
individual should also be trained and competent. The wrong advice or
intervention can be damaging.
3) Do not be afraid to seek psychiatric care.
If your child is not showing signs of improvement, you may have to seek
psychiatric care. Many parents and young people are afraid to see the
psychiatrist because of the stigma associated with psychiatrists. But
remember most psychiatrists see normal people with normal problems.
4) Do not shove it under the carpet.
Many parents when confronted with problems, enter into denial and hope
that the problem will go away. Yes, you may want to watch and wait, but
you should not wait for too long. If your child is not functioning and
the situation is getting worse, seek help.
5) There is danger in delay.
The longer the mental illness in young people goes untreated, the worse
the outcome. If you suspect your child may be having a mental disorder,
please act now. Seek help.
Dr Wendel Abel is a consultant
psychiatrist and head, Section of Psychiatry, Dept of Community Health
and Psychiatry, University of the West Indies, 977-1108; email: