When we think of summer, we don’t usually think of residential treatment for teens. We think of going on family vacations, spending days at the pool, outdoor barbecues, and lounging around watching fireflies during evenings that last forever. And how can we leave out that iconic summer event, 4th of July fireworks celebrations.
A couple months filled those kinds of relaxing, warm-weather leisure activities are the goal for most teens.
But as our teens get older, those summer goals change.
Some teens travel. Some go on international teen tours to the hotspots in Europe. Others go in a different direction. They do service work in places like South or Central America. Others go in another direction, and spend a month in the wilderness on adventure programs filled with backpacking, roc climbing, rafting, or sailing – you name it, there’s a program for it.
The idea behind both these approaches to summer is to reset and recharge doing something that’s not school in order to be rested and ready when the new school years begins.
However, some teens need something completely different during this summer.
They need to reset, refocus, and recharge. But for them, what they really need is to recover.
This summer, more than any in recent memory, many of our teens are dealing with the psychological and emotional consequences of two stressful school years dominated by changes associated with the pandemic.
Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior all increased from 2019-2021. When we say rates, it’s easy to distance ourselves from the subject. But what rates measure are real teens with real issues who need real help. That’s why parents of teens who developed a mental health, behavioral, or substance use disorder might over the last school year need to consider something different: residential treatment for teen mental health issues.
What Makes Summer a Good Time for Teen Residential Treatment?
When a teen develops mental health issues during the school year, it’s common for them to take the attitude “If I can just make it to summertime I’ll be fine.” Parents may think something similar, especially when the problems develop later in the year. “It’s the stress of classes, the stress of friends, and the stress of all the pandemic disruptions.”
We understand those attitudes. Now that summer is here, though, it’s time to address the situation directly. That means arranging a full psychiatric assessment with a licensed mental health professional to determine whether the issues, problems, or concerns that developed during the year meet the threshold for a clinical mental health disorder, or they’re typical teen developmental ups and downs.
A mental health professional can diagnose a mental health or substance use disorder, make recommendations for medication if needed, and offer referrals for outpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, partial hospitalization treatment, or residential treatment for teens.
We’ll focus on the benefits of residential treatment for teens. For teens with serious mental illness, residential treatment offers the essential things they need to get a good start on their journey back to balance and wellbeing: time, immersive treatment, more one-on-one sessions with counselors and therapists, and room to explore the various lifestyle changes and experiential therapies that can make a big difference after discharge.
Here’s our list.
Top Five Reasons to Start Treatment Over Summer Break
Committing to a residential treatment program during the school year may be disruptive on several levels. It can impact tangible things like academic progress, which we’ll discuss in a moment, and intangible things like family dynamics. We’re not against residential treatment during the school year: we have teens in treatment year-round. The teens here during the school year need to be there.
At the same time, summer is a natural pause in the school year, and therefore, the perfect time to consider residential treatment.
If your teen has a serious mental illness, they may need to be in treatment. And since the length of most residential treatment programs for teens is around thirty days – a range of three to six weeks, depending on the diagnosis, treatment progress, and insurance – you can plan a treatment program in summer that gives your teen time before and after treatment to do the more typical teen summer things we mention in the introduction to this article.
Although some schools are year-round now, most aren’t. The typical high-schooler in the U.S. has a summer break that lasts around 8 weeks, while some lucky few have a break that lasts 10-12 weeks. That means a majority of teens will have plenty of time on their hands, and treatment won’t disrupt their school schedule or have a negative impact on their academic progress. If your teen had a rough year because of mental health, behavioral, or substance use issues, summer is an opportunity to address those issues, develop strategies that increase likelihood of a successful and productive upcoming school year, and gain the confidence they need to hit the ground running when classes restart.
Parents know – and now there are studies that offer evidence to support their firsthand knowledge – that unsupervised downtime increases the likelihood a teen with behavioral problems will get into trouble, and increases the likelihood that a teen who misuses alcohol or drugs will continue and potentially escalate that misuse. That’s why teens who use substances may look forward to time out of school: it gives them more time to hang out with like-minded peers.
For teens with mental health disorders like depression or anxiety, unsupervised downtime can lead to negative outcomes as well. Teens with depression may self-isolate, which can allow feelings of loneliness and despair to become more powerful and overwhelming than during the school year, when their time and attention was dominated by their full daily schedule.
On the same note, during unsupervised summer downtime, teens with anxiety may also withdraw from peers and the world, which can allow their fears and worries to increase, become more disruptive, and exacerbate an already difficult mental health disorder. In all three cases – teens with behavioral diagnoses, teens with substance use issues, or teens with a mood/anxiety disorder – the 24/7 supervision of a residential treatment program can be exactly what they need to start the healing process and avoid falling deeper into dysfunction.
4. Trigger Management, Symptom Management, Practical Skills
Residential treatment offers something the less immersive levels of care don’t: the time to identify, work through, and develop success strategies for managing the life-interrupting symptoms associated with mental health disorders. During residential treatment, therapists spend time helping teens identify triggers, which are defined as “external stimuli that can lead to substance use or exacerbate mental health symptoms.”
Therapists and counselors also help teens recognize the patterns of thought and behavior that are life-interrupting, or in other words, patterns that hinder, rather than promote, the healing and recovery process. When teens learn to identify their triggers and the patterns that either precede or follow them, they can work with therapists to develop positive coping strategies to manage the triggers and replace life-interrupting thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with life-affirming ones. A residential treatment program during the summer can give a teen the time they need to create a toolbox of practical skills they know how to use before the return to class in the fall.
5. Family Time
If you find a residential program that meets your family needs and get your teen enrolled and admitted soon enough, they may make real progress and complete residential treatment in time for a family trip, or with enough time to spare to allow them to savor the activities common to a teenage summer: the pool, friends, and enjoying those long summer evenings. That’s an outcome any teen or family would welcome: a teen participates in a high-quality residential program, finishes the program with enough time to enjoy summer, and is prepared to meet the new year with the skills they need to manage the symptoms of their disorder and handle the academic and social demands of school.
A Reset Before the Next School Year
We think summer is a good time to initiate residential treatment – we make that clear above. But it’s also a good time to start treatment at any level of care your teen requires. At all levels – outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, and residential – teens receive evidence-based support that matches their level of need, and helps them develop tools that enable them to manage their symptoms and live a full and productive life.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.