A group of teens hanging outHow can adults identify teenagers at-risk for psychiatric problems like anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts? Although some teens at significant risk for these issues exhibit the traditional characteristics of “at risk” youth, many do not, forming an “invisible” group of teens struggling with mental health problems. An international study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet is the first to estimate the prevalence of a wide range of risk factors among teens. The research is part of the Saving and Empowering Young Lives in Europe project, a collaboration between 12 European countries and the United States.

The researchers surveyed 12,000 teens aged 14 to 16 from 11 European countries. The teens answered questions related to various risk behaviors and psychiatric symptoms.

Three groups emerged from the analysis. The low-risk group (58% of teens) demonstrated no or very few risk behaviors. The high-risk group (13%) scored high across the majority of risk behaviors. The third group—the invisible risk group—surprised the researchers. This segment of teens was characterized by a triad of behaviors: high media use, sedentary habits, and reduced sleep. Although the invisible risk group did not demonstrate the same outward behaviors as the high-risk group, teens in this group reported a comparable prevalence of suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety to their high-risk peers.

The findings also indicate that risk behaviors increase with age. The results suggest that risk behaviors for mental health issues are fairly common among teens.

“As many as nearly 30 per cent of the adolescents clustered in the ‘invisible’ group that had a high level of psychopathological symptoms. While the ‘high’ risk group is easily identified by behaviour such as alcohol and drug use, parents and teachers are probably not aware of that adolescents in the ‘invisible’ risk group are at risk,” explained Vladimir Carli, first author of the study of the National Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention of Mental Ill-Health at Karolinska Institutet.

This research is published in the journal World Psychiatry.

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