Why are Young Adults at Risk for Mental Health Problems?

No period of your life has quite such an effect on your mental health as your teens and early twenties. Your wellbeing has to go through so much; dealing with your changing body and emerging love life, coping with peer pressure, facing the pressures of independence and responsibility, and joining the workforce. According to Patrick McGorry, professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne, and director of Orygen Youth Health, ‘Everyone who has been through that period of life will remember how difficult it was. It’s an incredibly stressful period.’

McGorry explains, ‘Very careful research has shown that if you follow young people from puberty through to their mid-twenties, 50% of them will at some point during that period experience a period of mental ill health, such as diagnosable anxiety, depression or some other mental disorder.’ But why are young adults so at risk of mental health problems? Wellness experts assert that drug and alcohol use are often at play in these situations.

Professor Michael Farrell, director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, notes that as your brain is still developing and maturing until you reach your mid-twenties, until then your risk of taking drugs and drinking are particularly high. ‘We have concern that some of the patterns of substance use, particularly binge drinking and stimulants, may actually affect brain development, particularly of [regions] in the frontal lobe which are important in relation to forward planning and executive function and organization,’ he says.

However, McGorry asserts that the detection of early signs of trouble can prevent mental ill health in young people, especially with regards to psychosis. He comments, ‘These illnesses don’t appear overnight so there is what’s called a prodromal period where the person is clearly struggling with their relationships and their functioning and they do have subtle warning signs of impending psychosis. We’ve shown that we can actually predict with prescriptive criteria that people will have a one in three chance of becoming psychotic within a two to three year period, which is quite a potent predictor. Even if they don’t become psychotic, these patients are at higher risk for other forms of mental ill health like depression and anxiety, so we can recognise these early clinical stages of a need for care.’

Here are some common early warning symptoms of the prodromal phase to watch out for in your teenager:

  • Anxiety, irritability and depression
  • Difficulty in concentration or memory
  • Preoccupation with new ideas often of an unusual nature
  • Physical changes such as sleep disturbance and loss of energy
  • Deterioration in school or work performance

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