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A young man is displaying mental health red flags

5 Mental Health Red Flags

5 min.

Charlie Health lists 5 warning signs that the youth in your life might be struggling with their mental health.

By: Alex Bachert, MPH

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

January 15, 2023


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Table of Contents

Mental illnesses are defined as conditions that affect a person’s behaviors, emotions, or thoughts. You’ve probably heard of some of the more common mental health conditions—such as anxiety and depression—but did you know that there are variations of each of those? 

Research shows that one in three adolescents will experience an anxiety disorder in their life—whether it be panic disorder, generalized anxiety, or social anxiety disorder. Similarly, depression can look a little different for everyone. 

Spotting and diagnosing a mental health condition can be challenging, especially in teens and young adults. It’s not as straightforward as—let’s say—testing positive for Covid-19 or spraining an ankle on a run, but there are certain signs that someone might have a mental health issue. Below, we review the current state of our youth’s mental health, as well as red flags to look out for in teens and young adults.

What does a mental health crisis look like?

The data show that mental health conditions are becoming increasingly common among today’s youth. In 2019, more than one in three high school students reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness—a 40% increase from 2009. A few years later in 2021, nearly half of all young people in the U.S. lived with feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. 

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2021 Advisory, today’s generation of teens and young adults are facing unprecedented challenges which have had a direct and devastating impact on their mental health. Dr. Eli Muhrer, M.D., Medical Director at Charlie Health, agrees, noting in a blog post that we’re facing an “unprecedented youth mental health epidemic that has left millions of teens and young adults both over-medicated and under-resourced.” 

Charlie Health’s ​​Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Caroline Fenkel, DSW, LCSW, has also commented on how the mental health crisis is affecting our country’s youth: “For years, the greatest public health concerns for teens were binge drinking, drunk driving, teen pregnancy, and cigarettes—all externalized risks. And while these behaviors continue to persist, recent years have marked a shift toward a new, internalized, public health concern: isolation and its effect on mental health.”

So how can you help protect and prioritize your teen’s mental health? One way is to know how to recognize the potential warning signs.

Mental health red flags

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), there are nearly 300 types of mental illness and each differs in signs, symptoms, and severity. This can make it tricky to spot a mental health condition, especially during the teenage years when people naturally start to change and push boundaries. That said, there are several red flags which suggest that a person might be struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. In fact, many warning signs relate to activities of daily living—basic tasks that most young, healthy people can perform without any struggle or assistance. 


What many people refer to as “typical daily activities” can feel nearly impossible when you’re struggling with your mental health. But remember: you’re never alone. Reach out for more support. #charliehealth #teenmentalhealth #whatisIOP #IOP #mentalhealthawareness

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#1: Avoiding friends, family, or social activities

Social isolation can be voluntary or involuntary, short-term or long-term, but it’s important to note that the longer it lasts, the harder it can be to overcome. Why does it matter? Well, research shows a strong link between social isolation and an increased likelihood of anxiety and depression in both children and adolescents. If your child starts to avoid their friends or activities that used to bring them joy, they may be struggling with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or another mental health issue. 

#2: A change in grooming habits

For people who are suffering from a mental illness like anxiety or depression, even the most routine tasks can seem overwhelming. Maybe you forget to brush your teeth in the morning or you’re struggling to shower on a regular basis. Or you’re still showering, but you’ve abandoned habits that used to help you feel your best (think, painting your nails or trimming your beard).

People living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)—a chronic condition defined by unwanted and recurring thoughts (obsessions) that cause people to engage in repetitive behaviors (compulsions)—might experience the opposite problem. Specific OCD symptoms vary person to person, but some of the most common obsessions and compulsions among children and teens involve repetitive thoughts and actions. This may seem harmless enough, but OCD might make a person obsessed with precision or body waste, which can cause compulsions like excessive hand washing, showering, and teeth brushing.

# 3: A change in appetite

Stressed, sad, lonely, bored—for some people, an increased appetite suggests that they might be “eating their feelings” as a way to cope with what’s on their mind. For others, it’s actually a lack of appetite that is a sign of mental health struggles.

Not all changes in appetite are problematic—maybe your teen is going through a growth spurt or experimenting with intermittent fasting—but if they’re also exhibiting symptoms such as sadness, changes in sleep, or loss of interest in friends, then it may be worth having a conversation about their health and wellbeing. 

#4: Feeling fatigued or having trouble sleeping

Similar to eating habits, changes in sleep habits can be a sign that someone is struggling with their mental health. Sudden insomnia, too many naps, or not wanting to get out of bed may represent a bigger issue. 

Insufficient sleep is associated with an increased risk of accidents, depression, and risk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. So what’s an appropriate amount of sleep for a teenager? They suggest that individuals ages 13-18 years sleep 8-10 hours per 24 hours

#5: Smoking, drinking, or using drugs

Part of being young is pushing boundaries and taking risks. For some teens, this means experimenting with drugs and alcohol. However, what might start off as a single beer at a party can easily turn into a coping method for negative thoughts, stress, anxiety, and hopelessness.

The long-term effects of alcohol can cause serious mental health problems, especially for those who are living with a pre-existing mental health condition. Research shows that excessive alcohol use is linked to a variety of mental health issues, from depressive disorders to an increased risk of suicide

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Mental health support with Charlie Health

Did you know that half of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14? If you spot a potential red flag in someone you know, don’t hesitate to connect them with the support and treatment they need to manage their behavioral health issues.

Charlie Health’s Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) helps teens and young adults learn about and overcome their mental health struggles. Our experienced, compassionate mental health providers are available to listen to your needs, navigate your treatment options, and help you start the healing process.

Reach out today. 

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