After one of America’s most deadly mass school shooting recently in Parkland, FL, parents, children, and families around the country are asking “How did this happen?” and “How could this have been prevented?”
Many have jumped on the bandwagon urging for restricting gun control rights, and yes, I think we can all agree that a 19-year old with a history of mental disturbances and acting in very alarming ways is not someone that should have been easily able to purchase a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. Gun control is one issue, but there’s a much bigger picture here: a young mind’s mental state and teen mental illness.
A shooter’s profile will often follow a familiar path with warning signs, disturbing behavior, and concerns from others about their mental health. People who knew Nikolas Cruz, Parkland’s high school shooter, described him as a “deeply disturbed, emotionally broken” young man. They commented that warning signs of mental illness were plastered all over his social media accounts where he showed aggressive and strange behavior, talked about killing animals and even posted photos on Instagram with guns and knives.
It’s no surprise that from the outside Cruz seemed like a poster child for someone who needed help and who could have a severe mental illness.
According to the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) as of October 2017, about 50.7 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools. A study of mental illness in teens showed that about 1 in 5 young people have a mental illness, which is about 20 percent of our current population. Add this all together and this could mean approximately 12,500,000 students +/- today may show signs of or already have a mental illness.
A teenagers mind cannot process things and situations like adults because the rational part of their brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences, whereas teens process information with the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain.
In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing and not necessarily at the same rate. That’s why when teens experience overwhelming emotional input and may have trouble explaining later what they were thinking (which explains why many teens are vulnerable to mental illness-simply because of the life stage they are in).
It’s not unusual for parents to wonder whether their child is acting like a typical teenager or behaving differently due to mental illness, drug use or behavioral difficulties. Normal teens are often moody because of hormonal and physical changes happening during puberty, but when mental illness is involved, it may be difficult to distinguish “normal teenage behavior” from the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other emotional troubles.
For parents of teenagers, you can probably agree it’s perfectly normal for them to be down or out of sorts for a couple of days, however, if there’s a considerable mood or behavioral change that lasts more than two weeks, it could mean something else may be going on.
Here are some concerning behaviors experts say to pay close attention to:
- Decrease in enjoyment and time spent with friends and family
- Significant decrease in school performance
- Strong resistance to attending school or absenteeism
- Problems with memory, attention or concentration
- Big changes in energy levels, eating or sleeping patterns
- Physical symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, backaches)
- Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, crying often
- Frequent aggression, disobedience or lashing out verbally
- Excessive neglect of personal appearance or hygiene
- Substance abuse
- Dangerous or illegal thrill-seeking behavior
- Is overly suspicious of others
- Sees or hears things that others do not
*It’s important to remember that no one sign means there’s a problem and to examine the nature, intensity, severity, and duration of a problem first.
Recently, President Trump spoke directly to children across the country, urging them to seek help if they feel “lost, alone, confused or even scared” stressing the need to address mental health issues in America.
If you think your teen may be exhibiting signs of mental illness, seek professional treatment as soon as you can because if left untreated, it could become life-threatening and could lead to other illnesses.