Teenage Tensions: A Perspective on Mental Health Struggles

By Sophia, an 18-year-old Teen Link volunteer phone worker

Over the past few years, both as a teenager undergoing the trials and tribulations of high school and as a Teen Link phone worker, I’ve gotten a personal and diverse insight into the mental health issues teens are grappling with today.

Now, with a global pandemic, everyone is facing heightened stressors from a year of isolation, cancellations, uncertainty, and loss. I don’t claim to be an all-knowing expert about the “teenage experience” or mental health, but I have learned a lot through my work as a phone worker and these nuggets of wisdom have in turn helped me be a better friend to those around me—especially in these times of need. I truly believe that now, more than ever, it is crucial that we make the effort to take care of ourselves and look out for each other. We are all being affected by a unique stressor, and the only way to get through it is together.

Everyday Anxieties

It’s really difficult to generalize the teenage experience, given how many factors—like socioeconomic class, race, gender, household makeup, disability, and education to name a few—determine the specific issues an individual faces.

That being said, I think a big stressor that I hear a lot about on the phone line—and have also personally experienced!—is academic expectations and the college application process. It looms over teens’ heads as we go through high school, a constant pressure to sacrifice sleep for good grades and a social life for impressive extracurriculars. Everyone is scrambling to land the most prestigious summer internship, start their own nonprofit, score the highest on the SAT, or win the biggest award, because there’s this idea that where you go to college correlates with how smart you are, how hard you’ve worked, and how successful you’ll be.

Then, in addition to applying to college, there’s the matter of affording it. For many teens, attending college at all—yet alone an expensive private school—is not realistic without taking on tens of thousands of dollars in loans and taking up a draining part-time job. This is just not an option for some students, which can feel frustrating given how there’s a general assumption that college is the right choice for everyone and not going is stigmatized.

Many teens also deal with issues in their support system. Whether it’s fighting with their best friend, feeling like they’re part of a toxic friend group, being excluded from events, facing a complex romantic situation, or struggling with loneliness—almost every teen eventually experiences some sort of social turbulence. It is often when a problem strikes at this moment, where someone lacks their necessary support, that they choose to call Teen Link.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had a caller minimize whatever problems they’re facing, saying something like “I don’t know why this is so overwhelming to me” or “I used to be able to handle situations like this just fine.” But it also often turns out that these callers don’t have much of a support system. Maybe they haven’t had one for a long time, or maybe they recently lost their best friend, broke up with their boyfriend, or moved to a new place. It is one thing to face a relatively smaller problem like failing a math test or getting a ticket when you can talk to people about it, and a whole different situation to do so when you have no one to turn to for support.

Many teens struggle with difficult, unstable, or even unsafe home lives as well—which is another factor that can exacerbate the additional issues they face and leave them feeling like they have no one to count on. Others experience issues at school with their teachers, bullying, or feeling like they just don’t fit in.

Whatever it is, usually when a person calls us it means they don’t currently have anyone else they feel safe or comfortable approaching for help, and they’ve hit a certain breaking point. It’s because of this that we at Teen Link stress no problem is too big or too small for you to call in about. You are not wasting our time by talking about something “minor” or overwhelming us by asking for support with something major. We will happily try to help you avoid that breaking point, or guide you through a peak moment of crisis.

You Are Not Alone

The pandemic amplified many of the issues teens already faced. Those who struggled with school had to adapt to a whole new way of learning. Those who have difficult home lives became confined with their family practically 24/7. Those who felt lonely became even more isolated. To make matters worse, almost everyone lost things they had to look forward to and suffered reduced access to coping strategies like therapist visits, sports, music lessons, time with friends, and other hobbies.

Through working on the phone line and doing outreach projects for Teen Link, I’ve heard countless personal accounts of how the pandemic has touched every part of people’s lives. In addition to the challenges of online school and separation from loved ones, the pandemic also introduced new stressors like heightened job insecurity, the threat of contracting a dangerous virus, the loss of family members, and a general atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty. This past year’s college process was unprecedented in every way, and now teens are looking towards a new school year of uncertainty over vaccination requirements, masks, distancing, testing, in-person school, and more. Others still have not been able to reunite with loved ones they haven’t seen since early 2020, return to work, or resume their favorite activities.

What makes these struggles difficult is that the pandemic is something the entire world is facing together, but it’s also affecting everybody very differently so there is no single mental health solution.  

All I can say is that despite what’s happening in the world, it’s important to identify things that bring you joy and restoration and cling to them. Perhaps you find a new hobby or reignite your passion for an old one. Maybe you start that project you’ve always dreamed of starting, or choose a cause to get involved in. Maybe you simply take a nap or enjoy a bubble bath. It doesn’t have to be “productive” to be worthwhile or good for your mental wellbeing.

These things that give you joy are also important beyond the present moment because they can lay the foundation for coping in the future. At the end of every conversation on the line, I help the caller make an action plan for the evening. It almost always involves enacting some sort of coping mechanism so that the caller can regain control over their emotions and make it through the night safely. For some people, that may be self-care—like taking a shower, doing a face mask, making a cup of tea, or going to bed early. For others, distraction is the best coping mechanism and they may prefer to read, paint, bake, text with friends, or work on a project.

Ideas for Being There for Others

With all the stressors teens face—both during “normal” and pandemic times—and given the importance of support networks, it’s also crucial that you look out for your friends and family, if you’re able or it’s within your current emotional capacity to do so.

Make sure your friends know that it is safe for them to come to you with anything they may be facing and that their problems aren’t an annoyance or burden to you. Tell them you won’t judge them, and that your number one concern is their happiness and safety.

Be an active listener. If they do talk to you about what they’re going through, give them space to unload and process without interrupting or recentering the conversation. As they share, however, feel free to interject questions and validate their emotions. Active listening is the guiding principle for Teen Link phone workers, and I’ve found that this, more than resources or action plans or anything else, is best for grounding someone in the moment and making them feel supported.

Besides providing emotional validation and support, you can also show them that you care by doing what you can to make things easier for them and brighten their day. Maybe you cook them a meal, play their favorite song, run an errand for them, bake them cookies, help them with their homework, or participate in addressing whatever problem they’re facing. Make sure you ask them what they need from you, as some people find it helpful to talk about their issues while others prefer their friends to help distract them. When my friends come to me with something, I often ask if they currently need comfort and a space to rant or solutions.

If you think your friend is struggling with something big—for example, mental illness, suicidal thoughts, problems at home, or substance abuse—and you have a close relationship, ask them about the issue directly. This is often the best way to get someone to open up, especially if they are reluctant to ask for help or talk about their emotions and problems.

Even if they don’t choose to confide in you, it still lets them know that you noticed something was wrong, which can help them feel valued, and they may be more likely to reach out to you in the future. If you are ever seriously concerned that your friend is in grave danger, notify a trusted adult. It is always better to have a friend who is angry at you or in trouble and alive than the alternative.

One of the most important things I’ve learned during my time at Teen Link is this—as you support your friend, make sure you take care of yourself as well. You should not put yourself through a hard time to make things better for someone else, and any good friend will recognize that there’s only so much you can do. If things get overwhelming, know that you are not failing your friend by taking a small step back. If things get concerning or dangerous, know you are not betraying your friend by notifying someone else who can give them more support.

To learn more about Teen Link and how to become a volunteer, visit www.teenlink.org.