The difference between teen angst and mental illness

Since Adolescence is often the onset of mental illness it can be difficult to discern from the typical behavior of the age group. A certain amount of moodiness and risk-taking is expected since teens think of themselves as invincible.

Prior to tenth grade, Charles was a joiner and then stopped being as engaged in drama and school clubs around tenth grade. Little by little there was one more clue and I would make an excuse to myself that everything was OK even though my gut was screaming at me. We did seek help and we didn’t get good help, unfortunately.

Charles’ substance misuse put us at odds with our son and diverted our attention away from his depression but all the changes seem to creep up so gradually–the drop in grades, poor school attendance, loss of interest in activities he had enjoyed, a dramatic shift in friends.

He was always so engaged with friends and still quite funny to imagine he could be depressed. And until he was deposited against his will in wilderness, we didn’t know he suffered from depression. He was a master at hiding it.

Few wanted to help us sort things out and when I brought it up with others including healthcare providers and educators, it was often dismissed as “he’ll grow out of it,” despite my pushing for answers. There were champions along the way, however, who voiced concern and I want to give credit to individuals who helped us as much as they were able.

Teens are not engaging in negative behavior, getting in trouble, self harming, cutting classes, drugging or drinking as revenge against you but in an effort to cope with something. This behavior indicates an underlying problem.

I thought lack of motivation was something I could do something about, that there was a special formula that would catapult my child out of what I thought was complacency or laziness. If I could execute this parenting style it would transform my child into one that would inspire him to be a job-seeking teen entrepreneur. But what I was seeing was depression.

If you are hearing phrases like, “I don’t matter,” “no one cares about me,” or too many angry outbursts over minor things, lack of energy, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, not bathing or taking any care of personal appearances, isolating too often or utilizing negative coping strategies such as self harm or abusing substances, this is above what is normal. It’s usually not just one thing but a mixture of several.

If you feel in your gut that something isn’t right, it probably isn’t. There are plenty of lists to tell you what’s normal and what’s not but that pit in your stomach is your best indicator.

If you are waking up often with the thought that something is wrong, don’t ignore it.

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Published by

Anne Moss Rogers

I am an emotionally naked TEDx speaker, and author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind. I raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost my youngest son, Charles to substance use disorder and suicide June 5, 2015. I help people foster a culture of connection to prevent suicide, reduce substance misuse and find life after loss. My motivational, training and workshop topics include suicide prevention, addiction, mental illness, and grief. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now the legacy I try and carry forward in my son's memory. Professional Speaker Website. Trained in ASIST and trainer for the evidence-based 4-hour training for everyone called safeTALK.

12 thoughts on “The difference between teen angst and mental illness”

  1. And both of you ladies’ experience was so similar to mine. I was actually told that there was nothing wrong with him but that I was the one with the problem. Completely untrue, as I was rearing another child who was thriving. I was told that he had symptoms of ADD but not actual ADD. Was prescribed drugs anyway. Schools swept him under the rug because he didn’t fit the AP/IB Star Student mold. Just because one looks physically fine does not mean he or she is mentally fine. He is doing much better now, but did it largely on his own. Thanks for nothing, medical world and school administrators. In the end, it was his parents who never gave up on him, long after all others did. Shame on them all.

    1. It’s crazy how we focus only on the high achiever or the one left behind but the kids in the middle are made to feel like they have nothing of value to contribute. Doing well in school does not indicate future success. And sometimes kids are just bored with memorizing stuff instead of being embraced for their originality.

      1. You are correct. I had an average child. People may judge me harshly for this description, however, he is bright, empathetic, musically inclined, well-read, etc., yet just an average student. Schools (yes, HIGH SCHOOLS) are increasingly focusing on their national rankings, so God help you if your kid isn’t on the fast track to Yale. Oh, and he didn’t log hundreds of volunteer hours or find a cure for a disease. Why? Because he was too busy being depressed over why the teachers were pushing him out of their way to promote those fast-trackers. Self-medicating is REAL, folks. And docs should consult their common sense and conscience before handing out drugs like Pez dispensers. When he eventually does succeed in this world, it will be due to his sheer dint of will to get well. Thanks for letting me vent.

        1. Charles was a dismal student. Smart as could be and a creative genius but he was treated like a delinquent because he didn’t like memorization. The education system doesn’t stimulate our children, Carole. They need more and are by nature, innovative. Charles suffered, too. And he was suspended for a panic attack. I covered a lot about how he was treated in school in the book. And I’m going to bet there are a lot of parents who will be able to relate to that.

  2. We knew something was wrong, and he told us something was wrong. Unfortunately, the “mental health specialist” he saw dismissed him and then he started cutting for awhile, to show this guy he had problems. Then we went to another well known institution in town, and that guy just wanted to put him on heavy drugs without talking much.
    We never found decent help for him in town. We didn’t know what to do and he went off to college with no help, and I worried myself sick about him the whole time he was there….By then he was 18 and he wanted us out of his business. These situations are daunting for ill-equipped parents.

    1. We didn’t get great help either and the doctor we saw came “highly recommended” and then I realized the guy was a drug dealer in a white coat. We had a counselor, too, but he didn’t really like Charles and said that he was not depressed. So he never indicated a willingness to test him. Why not? My son was struggling. And it was weird because most people really liked Charles but I think my son felt emotionally stripped down in front of this guy. He had only observed him a couple of times in group.

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