Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of adolescence

Common mental health problems

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 07 April 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:835
  1. Pierre-André Michaud,
  2. Eric Fombonne


    The World Health Organization defines mental health as a “state of well-being whereby individuals recognize their abilities, are able to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and make a contribution to their communities.” Applying such adult based definitions to adolescents and identifying mental health problems in young people can be difficult, given the substantial changes in behaviour, thinking capacities, and identity that occur during the teenage years. The impact of changing youth subcultures on behaviour and priorities can also make it difficult to define mental health and mental health problems in adolescents. Although mental disorders reflect psychiatric disturbance, adolescents may be affected more broadly by mental health problems. These include various difficulties and burdens that interfere with adolescent development and adversely affect quality of life emotionally, socially, and vocationally.

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    Table 1

    Symptoms needing assessment

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    Mental health problems can affect adolescents' quality of life

    Mental disorders and mental health problems seem to have increased considerably among adolescents in the past 20-30 years. The rise has been driven by social change, including disruption of family structure, growing youth unemployment, and increasing educational and vocational pressures. The prevalence of mental health disorders among 11 to 15 year olds in Great Britain is estimated to be 11%, with conduct problems more common among boys and depression and anxiety more common among girls.

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    Table 2

    Definition of a mental disorder*

    The identification, treatment, and follow up of mental health problems in young people can be complicated. Parents and teachers may dismiss problems as merely reflecting adolescent turmoil. Young people are often very reluctant to seek help, owing to developmental needs about being “normal” at the time when they are exploring identity issues and trying to engage with a peer group.

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    Table 3

    Mental health problems and disorders in adolescents*

    Normal behaviour versus mental problems

    Variations of mood and temporary deviant behaviours …

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