Adolescent mental health: What parents need to know

Photo by Fernando @dearferdo on Unsplash
Photo by Fernando @dearferdo on Unsplash

Transitioning from a child to teen can be a stressful time, and according to experts, it is not uncommon for mental health conditions, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, to surface during this delicate period. 

And since many teens tend to also experiment with drugs or alcohol, diagnosing psychiatric conditions "is often complex," says psychiatrist Dr Ulli Meys who specialises in adolescent mental health at psychiatric hospital, Akeso Kenilworth. 

"Diagnosis of a psychiatric condition is often complex, and it can be even more so in adolescents," he says, explaining further that "these conditions have symptoms that may overlap with other disorders."

"We need to be extremely rigorous in our assessment to ensure that the condition is correctly diagnosed so that the treatment prescribed is appropriate, and therefore more likely to be beneficial."

The onset of psychiatric conditions in adolescents

Using schizophrenia as an example, Dr Meys further explains what makes diagnosis so problematic. 

"Where a person in their late teens develops psychosis, which is defined as a state where the individual loses touch with reality and may experience hallucinations or delusions, this could be an indication of schizophrenia."

"Schizophrenia has a strong genetic link, and establishing whether there is a family history of schizophrenia would be an important factor to consider. The family may also be able to describe whether the change in the teenager's mental state occurred suddenly or over a number of weeks, and whether there is a known history of association with drugs." 

"Where the psychotic episode is linked to schizophrenia, a gradual change may be observable over weeks or months with the person behaving increasingly out of character, as opposed to toxic psychosis where the onset is sudden and marked," he describes. 

Toxic psychosis 

However, due to the effects of drugs, alcohol or even particular medication, there is a chance that it could also be related to toxic psychosis. 

"In most instances, the effects of toxic psychosis will wear off in a few days to a few weeks, whereas delusions related to schizophrenia do not resolve themselves and tend to deepen over time," Dr Meys notes. 

'Common misperception'

An additional hurdle among those living with a mental condition is stopping treatment, says Dr Meys. 

"It is a common misperception that once the individual feels better, there is no need to continue with psychiatric medication. This is an indication that the medication is working and unless the treating psychiatrist advises otherwise, the person should continue taking their prescribed medicine." 

With this in mind, it's crucial that parents develop a practical understanding of mental health conditions to better equip themselves in supporting their child's mental well-being. 

The following resources are available to provide immediate support:

Suicide Crisis Line 0800 567 567 or SMS line 31393

South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) Mental Health Line 011 234 4837

Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit (24 hours a day) 0861 435 787

Find a therapist near you on

Compiled for Parent24 by Lesley-Anne Johhannes 

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