Mental and Emotional Health Problems Among Teens

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Washington, DC – Anxiety disorders. Depression. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Eating disorders. Drug and alcohol addiction. While many adults hold a stereotype of American teens as moody and dramatic, these are examples of some of the serious mental and emotional health problems confronting a significant minority of adolescents. How can we prevent these problems from occurring? What are the most effective treatments once teens are diagnosed?

To help answer these critical questions, Child Trends reviewed more than 300 research studies to determine the factors that contribute to the development of mental and emotional health problems among teens and to determine what research has shown to be the best treatments for teens. The review reveals which programs and approaches work, which don’t work, and which look promising and therefore warrant closer investigation. The findings are based on an extensive review of research studies done in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The results of this comprehensive review are presented in two companion products: a research brief, Promoting Positive Mental and Emotional Health in Teens: Some Lessons from Research, and a web-based What Works table that summarizes key research and evaluation findings. The What Works table is a point-and-click resource for the web. It presents information on specific problems (such as depression, ADHD, drug and alcohol abuse) and gives users the option to access short, readable summaries or to delve deeply into the research studies.

View and download this brief at hereto view the interactive What Works table and the rest of the American Teens series.

Findings from the review include:

  • Effective treatments for depression and anxiety include psychotherapy (such as cognitive therapy), drug therapy (specifically, serotonin-specific re-uptake inhibitors), making a youth’s environment more supportive and changing a young person’s environment from high-risk to low-risk (for example, providing housing vouchers to move into a neighborhood with more resources).
  • For ADHD, a combination of medication and psychotherapy appears to be more effective than the use of a single intervention.
  • The impact of drug therapy on children and youth is controversial and new research for these age groups is needed.
  • Homes and schools that are emotionally supportive and warm and that provide support for adolescents’ autonomy may boost teens’ psychological and emotional well-being.
  • Prevention should begin as early as possible – many mental and emotional health problems may be prevented with early intervention at the individual, family and community level during childhood and early adolescence.

“From our review, the research shows that there may not be a “single bullet” for addressing all of the mental and emotional health issues that teens face,” said Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D., president and senior scholar at Child Trends. “Just as many of these problems may stem from a number of influences, like a teen’s family and environment, a number of prevention and treatment strategies may be needed.”

Child Trends’ American Teens series summarizes and “translates” key research and evaluation studies on preventing teen pregnancy, encouraging better eating and exercise habits, promoting mental and emotional health, motivating teens in school, promoting positive social skills and encouraging responsible citizenship.

Knight Foundation’s Community Partners Program works in 26 U.S. communities to identify promising approaches to locally identified needs. With Knight funding, several Knight communities are concentrating on better lives for children and families. The Child Trends American Teens work helps the communities better identify strategies that might work locally for at-risk youth.


Child Trends, founded in 1979, is an independent, nonpartisan research center dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families by conducting research and providing science-based information to the public and decision-makers.