You’ve probably read all the headlines by now:
“Teen Mental Health Reaches an All-Time Low.”
“Teens Are Depressed and Social Media Is to Blame.”
“Teen Anxiety Rates Continue to Skyrocket.”
At this point, these phrases may not surprise you anymore. We hardly need to read the news to realize that mental illness is among the leading challenges teens face today.
With the rapid decline of teen well-being, psychologists and researchers have devoted increased attention to mental health. The increased awareness has pushed society to destigmatize mental illness and work more urgently on creating resources to help.
Today, the conversations on mental health are heavily centered on depression, anxiety, trauma, suicide, and mental disorders. While these topics are important, they do not encompass the full picture because they refer to mental illness, not mental health. As positive psychology expert Shawn Achor stated, “The absence of sickness is not health.” We cannot adequately discuss teen mental health without acknowledging everything that can promote teen mental health.
While we do not need to redirect our focus away from mental illness, we do need to broaden our perspective. Teens should not merely feel “not sad.” They ought to be happy, optimistic, hopeful, and confident. This article outlines three keys to fostering a healthy mental state.
1. Embrace the Friendzone.
No, I’m not kidding.
Many of the issues teens face stem from loneliness, including addictions that develop in the absence of connection, health issues resulting from social stressors, and social media abuse derived from a lack of satisfying connections with others.
The impacts of loneliness cut deep. Teens may attempt to alleviate their pain with remedies that only exacerbate the problem – seeking validation from social media, gossiping to elevate their own self-worth, or settling for an abusive partner because some love is better than no love. However, there is a better way to achieve the connection teens so desperately desire, and that is with true friendship.
Unfortunately, teens today seem to be more preoccupied with finding a good boyfriend or girlfriend than with simply finding a good friend. While dating relationships are far more exciting than friendships, they should not serve as a substitute. The power of a true friend is unmatched. Studies show that the most powerful predictor of a happy life is not physical fitness, celebrity status, healthy dieting, job success, or even great wealth – it is strong personal connections with others.
I am not suggesting that friends can solve mental illness issues. Friends are not therapists nor psychiatrists, nor should we expect them to be. But they can offer something the professionals can’t: an intimate connection. Friends can show teens that they are loved in spite of their flaws, validated in their pain, and supported through their sorrows. Human connection is an essential foundation for mental fortitude. In fact, connection might even be the most effective antidepressant in our modern day.
Encourage your teen to actively find and keep good friends. Find meaningful ways you can show your support, such as driving them to a friend’s house for a get-together, getting to know the friends they introduce to you, hosting a social gathering at your house, or actively listening when they tell you about their social life.
2. Develop Their Unique Strengths.
Adolescence is a time of life often laden with self-esteem issues. Teens become painfully aware of their weaknesses and tend to dwell on them for longer than is necessary. While many teens can easily recite a list of their weaknesses, how many are aware of their strengths?
Everyone is great at something. Perhaps they have a witty sense of humor or an eloquent way with words. Maybe they have a knack for analytical thinking or a remarkable ability to focus. For those who don’t know what strengths they even have, online assessments are a great place to start. Websites such as CliftonStrengths, Via, and High Five are designed to help individuals identify their natural strengths.
Studies show that focusing on strengths not only impacts someone’s daily life but their overall happiness throughout the rest of their life as well. By discovering their strengths and utilizing them more often, teens open the doors to greater self-esteem and happiness.
If your teen is struggling with their self-confidence, find opportunities to point out their strong suits. Praise them not just for what they do well, but also for the kind of person they are. A teen would love to hear that they are known for being strong, compassionate, hard-working, diligent, reliable, or brave. A simple compliment can go a long way.
3. Serve Others.
Teens are often censured for being too self-focused -- but can you blame them? Much of the stress they encounter revolves around their identity: performing well in school, being a good employee, qualifying for their dream college, dealing with a romantic breakup, making the school play or the sports team…the list goes on and on. In a culture that encourages self-centeredness, teens can find relief in focusing outward.
Teens want to feel valued and needed. Service is a great way for teens to find meaning and purpose beyond themselves. It also has therapeutic benefits, such as feeling connected to an important cause, breaking the cycle of maladaptive coping behaviors, and viewing difficulties through a broader perspective.
For many teens, the very thought of service projects is enough to provoke an immediate groan. But service does not always mean wearing neon green vests and picking up trash. In fact, some of the best service stems from an individual’s natural interests and talents. Musicians can perform for residents in rest homes. Bakers can make treats for friends who are lonely. Poets can express their love for someone in writing. Athletes can coach less-experienced teams. Scientists can tutor students who are struggling.
There are countless ways teens can use their talents to serve others, and there is no one correct way to do so. Help your teen identify how they can use their unique talents to serve others and cheer them on when they do. Teens unlock a world of immense joy when they use their passions to lift others.
It is a sad reality that mental health among adolescents is on the decline. When possible, teens who are battling mental illnesses ought to reach out to professionals for the best help available. Simply managing mental illness does not guarantee mental health; instead, teens can take proactive steps to cultivate a healthy mental well-being. By more fully incorporating friendship, natural strengths, and service into their lives, teens can create a lifestyle that is characterized by genuine happiness.