Generally speaking, our mental health refers to our state of mind and our ability to cope with the everyday things that are going on around us. Someone with ‘good’ mental health usually feels capable of dealing with the different everyday situations that they find themselves in. That’s not to say that they don’t have ups and downs. Feeling down, overwhelmed, tense, angry, anxious or moody are all really normal emotions for young people. In fact, part of the changes that happen for young people during adolescence is the experience of more intense emotions as well as stronger and faster emotional reactions.

So when should we be worried?

It is then sometimes difficult to tell whether a young person is developing a mental health problem or simply going through normal changes. The best way is to focus on functioning. If it seems like these changes are getting in the way of their everyday life or have persisted for a long period of time, it might be a symptom of a mental health problem and worth having a chat about, or looking at support options. Some things to watch out for could be:

Warning Signs

  • Not enjoying, or not wanting to be involved in things that they would normally enjoy
  • Changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
  • Being easily irritated or angry for no reason
  • Involving themselves in risky behaviour that they would usually avoid, like taking drugs or drinking alcohol
  • Experiencing difficulties with their concentration
  • Seeming unusually stressed, worried, down or crying for no reason
  • Worried about dying or others dying
  • Expressing negative, distressing, bizarre or unusual thoughts
  • Withdrawing from friends
  • Not looking after themselves, not showering or caring about their appearance

Some questions to ask yourself

  • Have you noticed a change in behaviour?
  • Is this change across multiple settings (i.e. home, school, with friends)
  • Is this behaviour occurring frequently?
  • Has this been going in for more than two weeks?
  • Is this change impacting on the young person’s day to day life?

These quick questions can give you an indication of how worried you need to be. Err on the side of caution, but the more you answer ‘yes’ the more you need to consider discussing these changes with the young person and/or a health professional.

Physical or Mental?

Sometimes physical illnesses can trigger mental health problems such as anxiety or depression so it is important to see a GP. Other times, mental health problems can also present themselves in physical symptoms such as stomach problems, headaches or muscle tension. Diet and Sleep are also really important to consider as they can effect a young person’s mood. Getting a doctor or other professionals to explore all the possible variables is important.

So what causes mental health problems?

There is no one “cause” for mental health concerns. Instead, it seems that a number of overlapping factors may increase the risk of a young person developing a mental health problem.

These can include:

  • A history of mental health problems in close family members
  • Adverse Early Life Experiences including abuse, neglect or significant trauma or loss
  • Individual personality and coping style such as low self-esteem or unhelpful thinking styles
  • Current circumstances
  • Social issues
  • Serious illness or physical injury
  • Drugs and alcohol use and experimentation
  • Being part of a group in the population, such as gay or gender diverse, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, refugee, disability.

It is not surprising that young people in OOHC are more vulnerable to mental health problems due to their life experiences. Also they often miss out on protective factors or skills that help them deal with normal emotional changes and experiences of being overwhelmed or stressed. These stressors then may develop into a problem quicker and more often than for other young people.


Which came first, drug use or mental health problem? A lot of the time it is difficult to know. What we do know, however, is that there is a close relationship between mental health concerns and drug use. For most people who have problematic drug use are also experiencing concerns with their mental health.

For some young people mental health issues can begin to emerge when they suddenly stop or cease use. Some young people use drugs to manage the symptoms of mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression. They may or may not be aware that they have underlying mental health issues. 

There are specialist ‘dual diagnosis’ services that can support young people experiencing both these issues. Most of the time, however, it is about supporting the young person with whatever they identify as a problem.

Stress is the feeling that you can’t cope with or control everything you have to do, or live up to expectations. There’s a difference between good stress and bad stress. Good stress can help you get through tough situations because you’re alert and ready to face the thing you’re anxious about. Bad stress is when you feel uptight, nervous and worried all the time.

When to be stressed about stress?

Stress could be causing a problem for a young person’s health and their ability to cope if they’re:

  • Sleeping badly
  • Feeling irritable
  • Having troubles concentrating
  • Having issues connecting with others
  • Feeling depressed, panicky or anxious
  • Having headaches, backaches or stomach problems

Some young people will become overwhelmed quite quickly and for reasons that may be unclear.

This may be particularly the case for young people that struggle in finding ways to cope with difficult situations, such as feeling out of control, fear of upcoming events such as court appearances or even conflict at home or with friends. Helping young people understand this response, gain different perspectives on the situation and learn ways to cope with difficult emotions are all ways you can support them.

Click here to find out more about responding to concerns about mental health.

Further Resources