Ok, it’s no secret to most that I have a specific passion for adolescents & young adults (there’s a reason every job I’ve had since finishing my undergrad degree has been with youth or college students.) It’s also no secret that I’m passionate about faith leaders learning more about mental health in general.
That being said, I’ve been increasingly specific recently in my emphasis that if you work with young people (youth pastors, teachers, volunteers, college ministers, etc.) it’s absolutely imperative that you be informed about mental health & the ways they’re developing. Here are a couple reasons why:
note: I’m going to refer to anyone aged 10-24 as adolescents. I might do an in-depth post later on why, but for now just trust me.
1. They’re encountering it anyway.
Look, whether or not you want to talk about mental health, adolescents & young adults are experiencing problems in the area in increasing numbers. Here’s what Dr. Frances Jensen says on the topic: “severe mental health problems are more common in adolescents than either asthma or diabetes. One in five teens will suffer a mental or behavioral disorder serious enough to affect his or her daily life. Even more alarming: roughly half of all adult mental health disorders begin during adolescence.” ¹
Dr. Jensen goes on to point out that between 2 and 9 percent of all teens have some kind of anxiety disorder, between 20 and 30 percent of all adolescents report at least one major depressive episode, and that adolescent depression is associated with a thirtyfold increase in the risk of suicide. Data from NAMI and Mental Health America show equally alarming numbers.²,³
This trend continues into the college years, with 25-33% of college students meeting the criteria for a depressive or anxiety disorder during their college career and even higher percentages reporting ‘overwhelming’ anxiety or depression that might not meet specific diagnostic criteria. (It’s not just the students self-reporting: directors of college counseling centers agreeing that sever psychological problems are growing.)⁴ As Dr. Gary Glass puts it, “our students are lonely and scared.”⁵
As Dr. Jensen puts it, “the vulnerability of a teen to emotional and psychiatric issues cannot be overemphasized.”¹ So whether or not you want to be having these conversations, you need to be. [tweet] To ignore the topic altogether is to give up on your chance to help the youth you encounter through some of the hardest things they’re going through.
2. You can help set them up for the future.
Remember how much easier it was to learn a foreign language in high school than it was when you took adult classes? Notice how much quicker your teenager learns new technologies and skills than you do? That’s because the adolescent brain is second only to the newborn brain in terms of plasticity (a fancy word meaning ‘the capacity of the brain to change with learning’)⁶.
This is so important that Dr. Laurence Steinberg says “adolescence is probably the last real opportunity we have to put individuals on a healthy pathway and to expect our interventions to have substantial and enduring effects."⁷
Obviously you can learn new things later in life, but if we can teach healthy coping skills, the value & normalcy of asking for help, and positive self-perception when it’s easier to learn, why wouldn’t we? I’ve floated this idea before, but what would things look like in 20 years if we taught every adolescent right now how to healthily engage with their emotions and process through their pain? [tweet] Since adolescents learn faster and remember better (based on their brain development), they get better results when getting help for both learning and emotional problems.¹
In fact, how adolescents encounter their mental health has a direct impact on their future mental health: if teens have anxiety or depression, they’re more likely to encounter anxiety or depression as adults.¹
So the experiences we give adolescents (especially in terms of creating safe spaces for them to experience positive things and guiding them through the harder times) are extremely important. Again, here’s Dr. Steinberg: "If the brain is especially sensitive to experience during adolescence, we must be exceptionally thoughtful and careful about the experiences we give people as they develop from childhood into adulthood."⁷
3. It helps explain a lot.
"Your children are changing, and also trying to figure themselves out; their brains and bodies are undergoing extensive reorganization; and their apparent recklessness, rudeness, and cluelessness are not totally their fault! Almost all of this is neurologically, psychologically, and physiologically explainable. As a parent or educator, you need to remind yourself of this daily, often hourly!" - Dr. Frances Jensen¹
Like most things, learning a little about the adolescent brain can help you understand why they’re acting the way they are. Instead of being constantly confused by seemingly illogical and overdramatic reactions to things, you could arm yourself with some basic information that sets you up with realistic expectations. Here are some quick examples:
“Ugh, teenagers are so self-centered and too worried about what others think of them. How narcissistic.” Maybe, but how about this: during adolescence, we see “improvements in brain functioning in areas important for figuring out what other people are thinking, the heightened arousal of regions that are sensitive to social acceptance and social rejection, and the greater responsiveness to other people's emotional cues, like facial expressions" leading to “the perfect neurobiological storm, at least if you'd like to make someone painfully self-conscious.”⁷
“They’re just so overdramatic!” Again, maybe. But let’s approach that while understanding this: the emotional part of our brains develop years before the part that gives us the ability to regulate and control them (“it’s like driving a car with a sensitive gas pedal and bad brakes.”⁷)
There are obviously more, but the simple point is this: adolescents are doing what they can with the tools they have. They’re trying to navigate a time of massive transition, increased self-consciousness, increased susceptibility to reward-sensations, decreased emotional regulation, and much more. So once we know all that, what do we do?
4. It can shift your stance.
Imagine this: your goal is to get yourself and another person across town. This seems easy enough: you choose a course and get to walking. But before long, you notice that the other person has a broken leg and gets winded easily. Frustrating? Sure, especially because walking across town might require going up some stairs and maybe catching a train that you’d need to run to catch. It might be even more frustrating if the other person wasn’t quite sure what their limitations were and were getting mad at you for much of the time.
But it would be hard for most of us to frame what was happening as a moral issue on the part of the other person, right? Of course, I’m not suggesting that the adolescent brain is a broken leg (especially due to the huge amount of potential that comes with this season of growth!). I am saying, however, that we might shift our approach from one of a battle (‘These teenagers are so annoying! Why can’t they just be more responsible and do what I say?’) to one of guide (‘How can I help us both get where we want while keeping everyone safe?’)
This shift in perspective might help us to understand some suggestions from the experts: to help adolescents practice the skills they’re developing (such as thinking things through before acting on them), to stop fighting against biology to try and make them something they’re not, and to focus more attention on providing them with safe environments that expose them to the right kind of experiences.¹,⁷
Maybe, by focusing our energy in the right places instead of fighting fights we can’t win, we’ll make adolescence a more pleasant experience for everyone involved.
¹ The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances Jensen, MD
² Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens from NAMI
³ 2017 State of Mental Health in American - Youth Data from Mental Health America
⁴ The College Student Mental Health Crisis on PsychologyToday
⁵ CXMH episode 49 - College Students & Creating Supportive Communities (feat. Dr. Gary Glass)
⁶ Brain Plasticity: How learning changes your brain from SharpBrains
⁷ Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D.