Overcoming the mental health challenges faced by teens and young adults from high net worth families

April 9, 2019 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD
mental health

At first the signs were subtle. Their 19-year-old son seemed irritable and was sleeping significantly more than usual. His parents assumed it was the result of his busy schedule. Then they got a call from the dean at his college. Their son had been transported to the local hospital with a blood alcohol level of .245. They learned this wasn’t the first time their son had been drinking heavily. He confessed that the pressure of keeping up with his classes, sports commitments, and making new friends often left him feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed.

This scenario has become exceptionally common as more young people in the U.S. attempt to deal with stress and psychological challenges by self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. For the children of high net worth families, a study conducted by researchers at Columbia University found that these negative coping mechanisms occurred more frequently. Children and young adults from families of higher socioeconomic status had a higher incidence of alcohol use, binge drinking, and substance use, as well as other maladjustment behaviors including lying, cheating, theft from parents and peers, destruction of property, and violence toward others.

Dr. Cheryl Rampage, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive vice president at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, found that anxiety among affluent children is 25% to 30% higher compared to teens of other socioeconomic backgrounds and 20% are diagnosed with clinically significant depression, an incidence 3 times the national average. Other researchers have found that in high school students from middle and upper class families, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, loneliness, and physical manifestations of mental health issues, such as headaches, stomachaches, and pain, occur at twice the rate of national averages.

The signs parents should know

The early signs of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and alcohol and substance use can be subtle. Signs that a teen or young adult may be experiencing these problems can include:

  • Unprovoked feelings of sadness, crying
  • Frustration or anger over small issues
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in usual activities and interactions
  • Conflict with family and friends
  • Low self-esteem, feeling worthless
  • Fixating on past failures
  • Exaggerated self-criticism
  • Higher than usual levels of sensitivity related to failure or rejection
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleeping too much or insomnia
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in school performance
  • Risky behaviors or self-harm
  • Increase in secretive behavior or lying
  • Abandonment of longtime peer group
  • Apathy
  • Lowered self-control
  • Physical signs, including bloodshot eyes, frequent nosebleeds, tremors, poor hygiene, flushed cheeks, marked drowsiness, slurred speech

Strategies to lower the risk and access needed support and treatment

To lower the risk that teens and young adults may experience serious depression, anxiety, and alcohol and substance use disorders, it is important for parents to regularly express to their children that they are unconditionally loved and valued and that this love and value are not based on achievement.

Combating perfectionism is another piece of the puzzle. No child or young adult can consistently achieve perfection without paying a high psychological, and in many cases physical, price. Parents should encourage children to set realistic goals that result from a child’s own desire to achieve rather than parents’ expectations of what achievement should look like.

Another strategy, recommended by Dr. Rampage, is to combine high-structure and high-warmth parenting practices that allow children to build their own sense of self, coping skills, and develop the habits of mind needed to create a life filled with meaning and purpose. These practices can include:

  • regular household chores
  • limiting material purchases as a means of gratification or mood boosting
  • regular family dinners
  • limits on privacy
  • taking part in social service activities
  • listening to what children have to say without expressing judgement
  • expressing confidence in them
  • managing one’s own anxieties so that children are less likely to be negatively affected by them

When teens and young adults do face issues with mental health and substance misuse, getting access to the best treatment as quickly as possible is essential. A health advisor can be an effective resource, providing confidential, expedited access to high quality mental health care services worldwide. Advisors also offer one-on-one support and guidance to help navigate the mental health care system and connect families with the care they need.