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Mental Health Treatment for Adolescents: An Overview

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
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If your teenager has a mental health issue and needs treatment, it may be difficult to know where to find the best available support. Adolescent mental health treatment comes in many forms. Generally speaking, most mental health centers offer treatment for teen anxiety, treatment for teen depression, and treatment for teen substance use disorders. Specialty adolescent mental health treatment centers have programs for any mental health disorder teens may experience, from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) to bipolar disorder (BD).

That means that as a parent, you have options.

But how do you know which option to choose?

How do you know what kind of treatment your teenager needs?

And once you know what kind of treatment they need, how do you separate high-quality programs from programs that are not high-quality?

The answer lies in evidence-based research: teen mental health experts have identified nine key components common to the most highly regarded adolescent mental health treatment programs. You can use the presence or absence of these components as a litmus-test to screen any treatment center you consider taking your teen to, whether it’s for depression, anxiety, conduct problems, or substance use issues.

Before we talk about those nine key components, however, it’s important to understand something called Levels of Care.

What Are Levels of Care?

Level of Care means a combination of two things:

  1. The amount of treatment your teen receives
  2. The relative intensity/degree of immersion involved in the treatment

There are four common levels of care. We’ll list them from the least intensive and immersive to the most intensive and immersive:


In outpatient teen mental health treatment, parents take teens to an office visit once or twice a week. This is a typical entry level of treatment for a teen who needs help and support with psychological or emotional issues, but whose issues do not significantly disrupt their ability to function in school and do not significantly impair their family or peer relationships.

Intensive Outpatient

These programs are called Intensive Outpatient Programs – IOP for short. In a teen IOP program, adolescents attend treatment for a half-day, three to five days a week. This level of mental health treatment for teens is appropriate for teens with mental health issues that are significant enough to disrupt day-to-day living, but can still live at home and/or go to school.

Partial Hospitalization

These programs are called Partial Hospitalization Programs – PHP for short. In a teen PHP program, adolescents attend treatment for a full day, five days a week. This level of teen treatment is appropriate for teens with mental health issues that are significant enough to disrupt day-to-day living. Teens in PHP programs typically do not go to school or work while receiving this level of care, but do continue to live at home.

Residential Treatment

These programs occur at Residential Treatment Centers – RTC for short. This level of treatment is appropriate for teens with mental health or addiction issues that are so severe they need 24/7 support and monitoring. Teens who attend an adolescent residential treatment center do not live at home and need a high degree of support in order to manage their mental illness.

The Nine Key Components

In 2003, researchers identified nine components common to the most highly regarded teen treatment centers operating in the United States. That original research included the best practices that apply to substance use disorder treatment for teens. A follow-up paper published in 2017 indicated that these same components also apply to adolescent treatment centers for depression, treatment centers for anxiety, and treatment centers for most other mental health issues teens experience.

Highly regarded teen mental health treatment programs include:

1. Evaluation and Custom Plans.

The best adolescent mental health treatment centers conduct complete evaluations and create a full biological, psychological, and social assessment of the teenager’s life. Quality evaluations must be:

  • Evidence-based
  • Recognized by the professional treatment community
  • Tested over time
  • Proven effective in real-world circumstances
  • Capable of recognizing co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Sensitive to family dynamics
  • Capable of identifying relevant social factors and other issues

If a teen treatment center does not perform an initial evaluation and offer individualized plans, then they’re not offering the best possible care.

2. Complete Treatment.

Once an evaluation is complete, a high-quality adolescent mental health treatment center must use the evaluation to create an individualized, custom plan that accounts for all the mental, physical, and emotional issues identified – a plan that addresses mental illness only is not enough.

3. Family Participation.

Individual plans must include the family – including parents, grandparents, and siblings – primary caregivers, and any other people active in the day-to-day life of the teen. Data indicates that more often than not, direct family participation in treatment results in better treatment outcomes for the teenager.

4. Age-Specific Programming.

Therapeutic modalities must be tailored to address the unique needs of teenagers. Adolescents require different approaches than adults. What works for one population will not necessarily work for another. Treatment centers must not only adapt modalities to meet the needs of teenagers, but also strive to create new approaches that offer teens the best chance of healing and recovery.

5. Involvement and Time-in-Treatment.

Adolescent mental health centers must make a genuine effort to build trust, cooperation, and commitment from teens struggling with addiction. Increasing time in treatment increases the likelihood of successful treatment. Therefore, teen rehab centers must adapt treatment environments, activities, activities, hours, and techniques so they’re more likely to resonate with their adolescent clients. An interested and engaged teen will commit to the treatment process sooner and stick with it longer. Evidence shows time-in-treatment dramatically increases their chances of sustained sobriety and long-term health.

6. Trained, Licensed, Professional Treatment Team.

Adolescent treatment center staff must receive specific training in adolescent treatment. Anyone involved in the recovery process must be trained in adolescent development and adolescent addiction issues. They must also have clinical experience addressing co-occurring mental and emotional disorders.

7. Culture and Gender.

Teen mental health treatment programs must understand and serve the various needs of the entire population. Clinicians must be aware of and trained in treatment practices specific to boys, girls, LGBTQI individuals, and cultural/ethnic minorities.

8. Full Continuum of Care.

Teen mental health programs must include practical, effective, proactive aftercare plans and evidence-based long-term sobriety strategies. Successful post-treatment plans include family participation, continuing outpatient therapy, peer support, and ongoing access to community-based options, such as AA, NA, SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery, or similar 12-step programs.

9. Treatment Outcomes.

Teen mental health programs must perform a consistent and timely evaluation of therapeutic modalities and treatment outcomes. Programs must fully commit to an ongoing process of assessment, review, and improvement in order to keep pace with current best practices and increase the overall likelihood of success for their teenage clients.

Whether you’re looking for a treatment center for teen depression, a treatment center for teen anxiety, or a treatment center for other teen mental health issues, any teen treatment center you choose should offer the components listed above. If they don’t you should keep searching until you find one that does.

The Next Step: Finding a Treatment Center for Your Teen

When you’re online and looking for treatment centers that specialize in adolescent mental health treatment carefully review their websites to confirm their programs contain all the elements mentioned above. When it comes to treatment, you don’t want to settle on a program that doesn’t meet or exceed best industry practices: evidence shows treatment program with these elements work.

Once you narrow your list down to a short list of potential prospects, get on the phone. Screen every treatment center you’re interested in. Keep the list above at hand. Go over every element identified by the experts as essential and ask specific questions about each one. If the teen treatment center you’re talking to doesn’t include all of them, or they can’t give you clear answers with regards to the nine essential components, they make your job easier. Thank them for their time, hang up the phone, and move on to the next center on your list.

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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