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Finding Mental Health Treatment for Your Teen: Things to Know Before You Start

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

When your teen receives a diagnosis for a mental health, behavioral, or addiction disorder, the first thing you want to know is how to help them. If your teen has a good therapist or psychiatrist, they’ll recommend a course of treatment. Decades of evidence prove that mental health, behavioral, and addiction disorders rarely resolve on their own: without treatment, they can escalate, with negative consequences ranging from problems with school and work to difficulty with relationships.

In some cases, untreated mental health disorders can result in escalating risky behavior, suicidality, and death.

That’s why treatment is essential.

The decades of evidence show something else: the sooner a teen who needs treatment gets the treatment they need, the better the outcome.

Therefore, after your teen receives a diagnosis, the first thing you do is look for treatment – but that can be overwhelming. Mental health jargon is not always easy to follow and understand. We wrote this article to help you with some of the language you’ll encounter when you begin your search for treatment for your teen.

Starting Out: What Does it All Mean?

We’ll begin with a phrase you’ll encounter right away: levels of care. A level of care is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the amount, frequency, and duration of the care your teen receives. The main factors that determine which level of care your teen needs are:

  1. The severity of the symptoms of their disorder(s)
  2. The level of acuity of the disorder, i.e. the immediate seriousness of the issue(s)
  3. The level of disruption caused by the symptoms of the disorder(s)
  4. Previous treatment history

We’ll start with the least immersive/intensive level of care and move through the levels to the most immersive/intensive level of care.
However, there’s a term you need to know first: biopsychosocial assessment. You should know this first because it’s the method mental health professionals use to diagnose teens and recommend a level of care.

Biopsychosocial Assessment

During a biopsychosocial assessment, clinicians gather information on the biological, psychological, and social factors that may affect your teen’s mental health. Some clinicians and treatment centers will also gather information on relevant cultural and/or spiritual factors, as well.

Learn more about biopsychosocial assessments.

Now we’ll move on to the levels of care.

Outpatient Treatment

A teen who receives outpatient care meets with a licensed therapist once or twice a week in an office setting. This is the least immersive level of care, typically recommended for teens with mild or moderate symptoms that are difficult, but not extremely disruptive.

Learn more about outpatient treatment programs.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP)

A teen who participates in an intensive outpatient program needs a more immersive level of treatment than a teen in outpatient care. This is the next step up the treatment continuum after outpatient treatment. Clinicians typically recommend intensive outpatient programs for teens with moderate depressive symptoms that are disruptive but do not significantly prevent their participation in family, social, or school life.

Learn more about intensive outpatient programs (IOP).

Partial Hospitalization (PHP)

A teen who participates in a partial hospitalization program needs a more immersive level of treatment than a teen in outpatient care or a teen in an intensive outpatient program. This is the next step up the treatment continuum after outpatient treatment and intensive outpatient programs. Clinicians typically recommend partial hospitalization programs for teens with severe depressive symptoms that prevent participation in activities and responsibilities associated with family, school, and social life.

Learn more about partial hospitalization programs (PHP).

Residential Treatment (RTC)

A teen who participates in a residential treatment program needs a more immersive level of treatment than a teen in outpatient, an intensive outpatient program, or a partial hospitalization program. This is the next step up the treatment continuum after outpatient treatment, intensive outpatient, and partial hospitalization programs. With the exception of inpatient hospitalization in a psychiatric hospital, this is the most immersive level of support available for teens with mental health, behavioral, or alcohol/substance use disorder(s).

Learn more about residential treatment centers for teens.

Inpatient Psychiatric Hospitalization

Inpatient psychiatric hospitalization is the most immersive/intensive level of care available for teens with mental health, behavioral, or alcohol/substance use disorder(s). A teen who needs inpatient psychiatric hospitalization is most often a teen in immediate crisis. This means the symptoms and behaviors associated with their disorder pose an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others, including suicide attempts, escalating risky behavior, and/or aggressive or violent behavior.

Learn more about teen inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.

Those are the most common levels of care. The list is not complete, however. You may also find information on Wilderness Programs or Therapeutic Boarding Schools, which are less common.

Now let’s move on to the terms and phrases you might find about the different types of treatment you might find when you search for professional support for your teen.

Teen Treatment for Mental Health: Types of Therapy and Treatment

We’ll start with three general terms you should know: the medical model of treatment, integrated treatment, and dual diagnosis treatment. Next, we’ll move on to specific therapies you’ll encounter on your search.

The Medical Model of Treatment

The medical model teaches that a mental health, behavioral, or addiction disorder is like a physical disorder. First, anyone can develop a mental health disorder, just as anyone can develop a physical disorder. Second, a mental health disorder responds well to evidence-based treatment, just like a physical disorder does. Third, a mental health, behavioral, or addiction disorder is a medical issue, rather than a moral failing, a deficit in character, or the result of personal weakness.

Learn more about the medical model of treatment.

Integrated/Comprehensive Treatment

The integrated/comprehensive approach to treatment is also known as the holistic approach. This teaches that when we view a disorder in isolation, we miss things that help to heal. When we consider treatment in the greater context of an i’s life, the treatment has a greater chance of success.

Learn more about the holistic approach to mental health treatment.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

If your teen has two or more mental health, behavioral, or addiction disorders at the same time, they receive a dual diagnosis and will likely receive a referral for dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring disorders. Evidence shows that treatment success increases when treatment addresses all the issues a teen faces simultaneously, rather than one at a time.

Learn more about dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring disorders.

You’re likely to run across those three terms in your search, so it’s important to know them. They also help you situate the following therapeutic approaches in the larger context of mental health treatment for teens.

Therapy-Specific Terms

Now we’ll move on to terms and phrases you’ll find that are related to specific therapies most treatment centers offer as part of your teen’s treatment plan. This reminds us: a treatment plan is a roadmap to recovery that your teen, your teen’s treatment team, and you devise before they begin treatment. This also reminds us: your teen’s treatment team is the group of clinicians and staff who participate directly in your teen’s recovery.

Now for those specific terms and phrases.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Renowned therapist Dr. Marsha Linehan developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in the 1980s to help teens with high emotional reactivity who did not respond well to traditional treatment. Adolescent-specific DBT programs include five core modules that revolve around developing specific skills to help teens manage extremely disruptive symptoms associated with mental health, behavioral, or addiction disorders. DBT programs for teens may be DBT-comprehensive or DBT-informed.

Learn more about Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for teens.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT operates from the assumption that if your teen experiences patterns of thought that make them feel and behave in ways that aren’t what they want, then the way to change those feelings and behaviors is to change those patterns of thought. CBT connects thought, feeling, and behavior in a way that allows teens to make those changes and start the path to recovery.

Learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT)

Mindfulness practitioners describe mindfulness as “…our ability to be aware of what’s going on both inside us and around us. It is the continuous awareness of our bodies, emotions, and thoughts.” The combination of mindfulness and CBT helps teens identify, understand, and work through the emotions related to their mental health, behavioral, or addiction issues with self-understanding and compassion – and without judgment.

Learn more about Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT).

Motivational Interviewing (MI)

Therapists developed motivational interviewing in the 1980s as a contrast to the sometimes harsh, confrontational approach to addiction treatment that was common at the time. MI therapists operate from the assumption that empathy and understanding more effective approaches to motivating teens to change than confrontation and argumentation.

Learn more about Motivational Interviewing (MI)

Seeking Safety

Seeking Safety is an approach to treating teens – or anyone – with a history of trauma. The primary characteristic of this type of treatment is that Seeking Safety therapists do not require the person in treatment to describe their past trauma in depth or in detail as a main feature of their treatment. Rather, they follow core principles and teach skills that help teens to heal and avoid retraumatization.

Learn more about Seeking Safety.

Expressive Therapies

Research into brain function shows that humans store traumatic memories in the right hemisphere of the brain, while skills like speaking and talking originate in the left hemisphere of the brain. That’s why teen treatment centers use therapeutic music, art, writing and dance to help teens process and understand the root causes of their mental health, behavioral, or addiction disorder(s). There’s another reason, too: they’re fun.

Learn more about expressive therapies offered at Evolve.

Experiential/Complementary Therapies

The phrase experiential learning means learning by doing. When teen treatment centers use experiential and complementary therapies like surfing, equine therapy (horses), hiking, general exercise, the phase means learn about yourself by doing. Experiential and complementary therapies help teens get out of their heads, try new and fun activities, and explore lifestyle and activity options that promote and support long-term recovery.

Learn more about experiential and complementary therapies.

Community Support

Community support means group meetings that typically occur outside of the daily schedule that teens in mental health treatment follow on a daily basis, although these types of meetings can and do happen during official treatment time. These support meetings include groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Al-Anon (for family members of people with addiction issues), and more.

Learn more about community support groups for teens.

You’re likely to find all the terms and phrases we list above when you search for treatment for your teen. As we mentioned, it can be overwhelming, but simply by reading this article, you’ve taken the first step toward helping your teen get on the road to recovery. We’ll finish by reiterating an idea we introduced at the beginning of this article:

Treatment works – and the sooner a teen who needs treatment gets the treatment they need, the better the outcome.

Finding Help: Resources

If you’re seeking treatment for your teen, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.

In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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