5 Things I Wish I’d Known About Teen Boys and Mental Illness

Gabi Coatsworth has experienced depression and mental illness in both herself and others. Here is what she’s learned.


1. It may not look like mental illness

I was a teenager who wore black, slept too much and cried a lot. I ate too much or too little, couldn’t concentrate on my homework, and wasn’t interested in a social life. I had no idea that these symptoms, if they last more than a couple of weeks, can signal serious depression, and simply thought this was what being a teenager was like. It wasn’t until I was 26 that I had my first “nervous breakdown” and was diagnosed with chronic depression. I was lucky. If I’d turned to drugs or alcohol as a way to solve my problems, I might have been another teenage drug addict and never gotten the help I needed. Even so, I didn’t recognize the symptoms in my son until it was too late. He was already doing drugs every day. He wasn’t diagnosed until he was 33.

2. Look for mental illness in the family

Was there an aunt who had a “nervous breakdown” when you were growing up? A grandparent who never spoke to anyone?  A relative who “burned out” at work? A cousin who had to leave college because the stress was too much? A brother who was in trouble because of drinking or partying? These may be pointers to underlying mental health issues. Many mental illnesses run in families. If there’s mental illness in yours, then your child’s drug activities may be an attempt to self-medicate a family disease.

3. Get informed—mental illness is tricky

When I was dealing with my own depression and then my son’s, there wasn’t the vast amount of information around that there is today. I had to look for books in the self-help section of the library or bookstore. I felt ashamed that I needed the books, and sure other people were judging me. These days, there is almost too much information around—so pick your sources carefully. The best information on drug addiction and mental health comes from reputable sites like the Partnership at Drugfree and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Parents’ blogs can be helpful too, mainly because they tell you about other parents’ experiences and help you realize that you’re not alone in dealing with this.

4. Don’t wait to get help

If your son is showing signs of depression, don’t wait until he agrees to see someone about it. Be proactive. You can begin with your child’s school counselor, sports coach, clergy or doctor. These days, counselors have extensive information about outside resources to help both you and your child. They can recommend sliding scale counseling agencies that charge reasonable amounts and have access to emergency resources such as Mobile Crisis and the local Department of Children and Families, which can also point you in the right direction. But do it now. If you wait until your son is 17, you won’t have the right to make him get help.

5. If you can’t help your teen, help yourself

Sometimes, your child’s problems will seem overwhelming. Don’t let your son’s problems become your whole life. Make sure you take care of yourself first, so that you can help your son. A sick parent can’t do much to help a sick child. Get support. (Al-Anon 12 step groups are free and easy to find anywhere in the country.) Ask your local hospital about support groups for parents, or see a counselor yourself. Join conversations online, or write a journal or blog. Eat right and get some exercise every day. You deserve looking after, too.

This article first appeared on the website of Partnership at Drugfree: http://intervene.drugfree.org/

—Photo cassandrajowett/Flickr

About Gabi Coatsworth

Gabi Coatsworth is a British-born writer who has spent half her life living in the United States. She lives in New Hampshire and Connecticut, with her husband, three sons, and a dog. The dog is sane.


  1. Oh that elephant in the corner that people still wont talk about. mental illness and suicide in young men in particular. When will we learn to be open and tolerant and compassionate? Why is mental illness such a threat? It isnt to me and we need to out it more so that we, as a society become more comfortable with it.

    Bravo for your great writing.



  2. Thank you very much for sharing that with us.

    My teens were also very trying – I saw a lot of myself in your description of your younger self.

    I wasn’t diagnosed with depression until I was 36, although I and others had suspected for many years.


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