How Mental Health Impacts Teen and Young Adult Development

Mental Health Impacts Teen Development

By: W. Scott West, M.D.

Growing up is difficult, and growing up to be a healthy and functional adult is a challenge in itself. Several things complicate the process. The development process is similar to what happens when we build something. Think of it like constructing a house. If we have the structure of the house built, the electrical wiring or other means of communication throughout the house needs to be established.

Likewise, once we are born, and our basic structure is there, we grow and develop. As far as the brain is concerned, this is mostly a result of the development process beginning in the back region and stem area of the brain and finishing in the prefrontal cortex.

This development process is accomplished by:

  • Myelination
  • Synaptic pruning
  • Increased connectivity

So in turn, accomplishes:

  • Attention and focus
  • Complex planning
  • Decision-making
  • Impulse control and risk management
  • Logical and organized thinking
  • Personality development

However, the development process can be positively affected by:

  • Nutrition
  • Education
  • Nurturing environment
  • Exercise
  • Optimized sleep
  • Stress reduction
  • Socialization
  • Hormones

And negatively by:

  • Substance abuse
  • Stress
  • Poor nutrition
  • Sleep problems
  • Social isolation
  • Environmental disruption

Studies involving neurobehavioral, neurochemical, pharmacologic evidence, and MRI research suggest that the brain and the brain’s neurocircuitry continue to develop primarily due to the process of myelinogenesis. Plasticity is about neuronal changes that occur with learning, as there are elaboration and stabilization of synaptic circuitry. This neurocircuitry can be improved, revised, and altered during plasticity. Neurodevelopment can strengthen connections in areas of the brain, including the brain stem, cerebellum, occipital lobe, parietal lobe, frontal lobe, and temporal lobe. All of this continues through the mid-twenties and results in what we call adulthood.

Also, during those years, we have the real struggle of dealing with mental health issues. Data from the National Institute of Health revealed that 49.5 percent of adolescents have any mental disorder and 22.2 percent have what is called a serious mental illness meaning that there is a serious functional impairment substantially interfering with or limiting one or more major life activities. Young adults have a prevalence of 25.8 percent of any mental illness and 7.5 percent of serious mental illness.

recent study found that teens and young adults are more distressed, more likely to have major depression and suicide than over the last decade. Major depression has increased by 62 percent, and suicide has increased by 56 percent.

The presence of mental health issues in the context of brain development is another consideration in brain development. Whatever diagnosis someone has, there are common symptoms involving sleep, cognition, stress, social isolation that we know negatively affect brain development. Plus, we have the treatment, specifically pharmacologic therapies that have unknown effects on the process.

It turns out that most people do not seek treatment, which limits the possibility of creating the best environment for the necessary development. Another recent study funded by the World Health Organization found three interventions that decreased depressive and anxious symptoms, decreased violence, and substance abuse. These interventions involved improving interpersonal skills, developing emotional regulation, and providing alcohol and drug education.

These findings and continued studies fit with our working knowledge about brain development and construction of the environment that will allow us to thrive throughout our lives. As humans, we all experience growth and development and face challenges, yet we are best served if we educate ourselves and seek out resources to help make our day-to-day as positive as possible, as well as what’s on the horizon. By being proactive about our mental health and the mental health of others, we have an opportunity to make the best choices we can to make today and our future the best it can be for ourselves and generations to come.

Source: PsychCentral.com, September 2019.