How to tell when a young person is struggling

How to tell when a young person is struggling

Friday, 29 October 2021

At Jigsaw, we know early intervention can make a huge difference to a young person’s mental health. Offering support early on can prevent a young person’s mood from deteriorating and possibly avert a crisis.

To act early, you need to know what to look out for. And how to tell if someone is beginning to struggle with their mental health.

Recognising signs

We have all had those moments where we recognise a young person not quite seeming themselves.

It might be something they say or do, or something they fail to do, that lets us know they may be struggling with their mental health. We all have our off days. It is important to acknowledge and to talk about this.

However, there are some changes in how a young person is acting, thinking or feeling that can be first signs they are struggling.

Woman smiling and talking to a young woman who has the back of her head to the camera

Taking action early

Taking action early and opening up a conversation might be key to helping a young person access support, or preventing a crisis from developing.

What to look out for

Here are some signs to look out for that a young person may be feeling overwhelmed. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some key indicators they may need support.

Taking action early and opening up a conversation about these signs might be key to helping a young person access support, or preventing a crisis from developing.


Anxiety may include having anxious thoughts, feeling worried or experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety. Examples are a racing heart, stomach pains or difficulties catching your breath.

The following are signs to look out for:

  • Seeming preoccupied, distracted or worried
  • Doubting their abilities with no reason to do so
  • Constantly seeking approval from parents, peers or teachers
  • Worry about future events that are beyond control.

Check out Anxiety and young people for more.

Reduced attention span

You may notice a deterioration in their capacity to pay attention. The key here is that their attention span is reduced compared to what it is typically. Attention span can vary hugely from person to person, so it depends on what is typical for the individual.

  • Are they struggling to pay attention during an episode of their favourite box set, where usually they would be engrossed?
  • Maybe they are an avid reader, but suddenly can’t finish a book?
  • Do they drift off and stop listening mid conversation?
  • Are they frequently forgetful?


Watch out for signs they are withdrawing socially from others and isolating themselves. They may be much quieter amongst their friends than normal. Or they may remove themselves altogether and be spending most of their time alone.

It can also be an indicator of bullying.

  • Refusing to go to school
  • Avoiding social situations or activities they previously enjoyed
  • Spending all their time in their room
  • Over reliance on virtual realities and devices.
young woman biting her nails


This may be a tricky one to spot as many teenagers, in particular, may go through periods of irritability. What we are talking about here is someone who appears irritable over a long period of time. Or someone who displays signs of irritability when they wouldn’t typically do so.

Sometimes, low mood in young people can manifest itself not so much as sadness, but as irritability or restlessness.

  • Begins to have explosive outbursts
  • Becomes cranky or angry for no clear reason
  • Can’t handle any criticism, no matter how constructive
  • Becomes restless, fidgety or hyperactive.

Appetite changes

A larger or smaller appetite than usual, and/or eating significantly more or less than typical, may indicate they are struggling with their mental health. These may be easy to spot, or they may be hidden by changed behaviours.

  • Refusal to eat in public places, or in the school canteen
  • Avoiding meal times
  • Hoarding food
  • Sudden change in eating habits or maybe adopting a strict or extreme diet.


Any signs of self-harm should be taken seriously and treated sensitively. This is often very secretive behaviour and it can be difficult to spot, but signs to look out for are:

  • Unexplained scars, fresh cuts, scratches or bruises
  • Interfering with the healing of wounds, picking and scratching
  • Wearing long sleeves, trousers or thick tights, even in hot weather
  • Unusually frequent accidents resulting in injury.

Sleep difficulties

Difficulties getting to sleep, staying asleep and/or waking up very early may indicate low mood or anxiety. Dramatic changes to sleep patterns are also indicators.

  • Are they sleeping a lot less or a lot longer than usual?
  • Do they sleep enough but always seem tired?
  • Do they have trouble falling asleep or frequently wake in the middle of the night?
  • Are they having frequent nightmares?

It is important to stress again, this list is by no means exhaustive or definitive. Neither do the signs above mean that a young person is definitely struggling with their mental health. But these are common indicators when someone might be facing difficulties of some kind.

If worried about a young person, the best thing is to talk to them about your concerns. We know this isn’t always easy so you can read more about how to start the conversation here.

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