Half of all mental health issues are established by the age of fourteen

Mar 4, 2021

50% of mental health issues in the UK are established by 14. We look at the teen brain

For the purposes of this article, we shall be focussing on mental health and teenagers. We will tackle early childhood in a separate post as the two pose different issues.

It’s truly worrying but 50% of mental health issues are established by the age of 14[1]. In this blog we examine briefly why it may be and some of the issues that arise in the teens. Before we look into this though, let’s put 14 years old into some context. 

Girls typically end puberty by about 13 years old[2]. Boys’ puberties will usually last to around 14 years old. At the age of 14, a teenager may either be in year 9 or just starting their GCSE studies. Studies show that teens around these ages also develop new neuronal connections similar to the brain development leaps that 1-3 year olds make[3]. This structural upheaval actually continues all the way to around 25 years old.

At a time when a child is becoming an adult, flooded with hormones and developing increased brain matter, it is shown that half of all mental health issues are developed. And it’s understandable.

From a simply biological standpoint, pre-teen and teenage life is difficult. Growth spurts can make a body with which a child is comfortable suddenly feel alien literally overnight. Hormones are kicking in meaning youngsters are experiencing and responding to stimuli in a completely different way than they have previously.

The teenage period is one of critical importance beyond biological development too. Education becomes the stepping-stone to the futures of our youths. They must focus on increasingly difficult educational expectations whilst trying to navigate the decisions which will shape their lives. At the age of 13-14 kids in the UK are expected to decide which subjects they think will best serve them in the future.

Now think about life for modern teenagers. Technology rolls on like a juggernaut. Social media is very literally designed to keep you hooked and scrolling[4]. Social media addiction is frighteningly real. And every screen – TV to Smart Watch – is flooding their newly grown synapses with unrealistic expectations.

Being a teenager is difficult, so much so most adults will reminisce with rose tinted glasses – perhaps including diluted versions of troubling memories in their recollections but completely glossing over their guaranteed awkwardness and stresses. It’s difficult to actually remember and focus on just what a tumultuous time being a teen was.

Brain Development

Studies actually show that teens struggle to filter out unnecessary emotional information when interacting with their environments[5]. This means that, at all times, they are absorbing and reacting to emotional cues, they can’t help picking up on emotions of others. Meaning they are constantly building bags of emotional baggage, and hence seemingly irrational responses.

In fact, during the teen years, the limbic system is changing rapidly. The developing amygdala coupled with the hormonal responses are responsible for newly heightened experiences of emotions – rage, internal and external aggression, sexual attraction, fear and excitement. And the limibic system takes greater control of a section of the brain called the pre-fontal cortex. This section is associated with planning higher order thinking and impulse control.

The teenage years are akin to suddenly being thrown behind the controls of a tank. You may have mastered driving but now you are in the driving seat of a 70 tank. Not only do you need to make it go, you have high powered weaponry at your fingertips, new controls and you’re suddenly being expected to navigate your way across the barbed wire hell of no-mans land at the Somme. Craters gape everywhere ready to swallow you up.

Imagine now, being in the tin can vehicle. The stress of trying to manage. Now imagine a team of people crammed in there with you. All screaming instructions. All talking over each other. All loud. Confusing. 

That’s being a teenager.

Roots of Teen Issues

Peers

One of the new tools that teens develop with their growing brains is abstract thought. Teens begin to be able to actually imagine things through the eyes of others. (Prior to this, this sort of abstract thought is largely learnt by rote). This new abstract thinking means that teens can picture themselves through the eyes of others. 2004 research by the New York Academy of Sciences shows that as abstract thinking improves, social anxiety can increase.

As they now understand that other have a perception of them that may differ from their own, teens begin to focus on self-presentation. Couple this with body images goals and lifestyles presented in the media and the goal of presenting oneself becomes increasingly worrisome.

Risk/Reward

The limbic system of the brain of teens means they have a higher need to seek reward than adults. Their brains literally light up more significantly than any other age group when they are rewarded. The danger of this is that they require greater levels of thrill/excitement/attraction/danger/fear to stimulate them. They actively seek it more than other age groups.

Now add hormone changes making them more aggressive/sexually active/energetic and teenage thrill seeking can very quicky lead to engaging in unsafe behaviours. The area of the brain responsible for impulse control doesn’t typically mature until 17 years old. 

Tantrums/Intense Emotion

As mentioned, rampant hormonal changes mean that teens can become temperamental. They simply experience emotion more intensely than we do at other ages. And the emotions are difficult to control as they become more nuanced. They also have the issue of inability to correctly decide when to factor in emotion to a situation.

The concept of teen tantrums links, not only to emotional development, but also to the fact that teens are having to test out the new tools that they are developing. 

Physical Cues

Teens’ bodies are developing quickly. Their bodies are maturing sexually. Overnight, they are stretching and elongating. Even voices are affected, and a child can suddenly sound like a completely different person. And they are now becoming of not only their own perceptions of themselves, but the perceptions of others. And now they are also bombarded countless images through social media platforms which are shaping their perceptions.

Common Mental Health Issues in Teens

  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Drug/Social Media/Gaming Addictions
  • Self-Harm
  • Stress

This is just a very brief skip through the roots of mental health issues in teens. The topic is huge and diverse. The key take away though is the fact that 50% of the mental health issues suffered by adults are rooted in this tempestuous time. There are so many areas of difficulty that it is understandable the mental health issues can arise. The true concern here is how many of these issues are undiagnosed at this time, leaving the sufferers without support.

We can help

Based in Wolverhampton, Mental Health Midlands is a first-class training provider supporting businesses in Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Walsall and the Black Country. We provide recognised course in mental health such as two-day courses to become Mental Health First Aiders to basic entry level half day mental health courses to aid understanding of a misunderstood area. We help businesses to overcome mental health issues and break the stigmas around mental health in the workplace.

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