Emily Bazar
California Health Line

Mary Rose O’Leary has shepherded three children into adulthood, and teaches art and music to middle-school students.

Despite her extensive personal and professional experience with teens, the Eagle Rock resident admits she’s often perplexed by their behavior.

“Even if you have normal kids, you’re constantly questioning, ‘Is this normal?’” said O’Leary, 61.

Teenagers can be volatile and moody. They can test your patience, push your buttons and leave you questioning your sanity — and theirs.

I’m not being flip. Mental health challenges are a serious — and growing — problem for teenagers: Teen and young-adult suicide has nearly tripled since the 1940s. The rate of 12- to 17-year-olds who struggled with clinical depression increased by 37 percent in a decade, according to a recent study.

And schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders often manifest themselves in adolescence.

In fact, half of all mental health conditions emerge by age 14, and three-quarters by 24, said Dr. Steven Adelsheim, director of the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, part of the university’s psychiatry department.

For parents, it’s often hard to separate the warning signs of mental illness from typically erratic teenage behavior.

When O’Leary’s son, Isaac, now 23, was a teen, he had two run-ins with police — once for hosting a wild party while his mom was away, and again when he and a friend climbed up on the roof and challenged each other to shoot BB guns.

O’Leary dismissed those incidents as teenage pranks. But she did start to worry when she was in the midst of divorce proceedings with her then-husband and noticed that Isaac started exhibiting some unusual behavior. He complained of stomach aches and racked up absences from school.

That’s when she decided it was time for the family to see a therapist. “It’s a question of what’s normal for my kids,” she explains.

O’Leary is right. Mental health experts say the first step in recognizing possible mental illness in your children is to know their habits and patterns — to spot when they deviate from them — and to create an environment in which they feel comfortable talking with you.

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