Muir Wood therapist, David Laing
Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services is a Joint Commission-accredited mental health and substance use disorder treatment provider located in Petaluma, California. We provide integrated evidence-based care including psychiatry, psychotherapy, experiential therapy, wellness services, and milieu therapy for adolescents and teens, and their family members.

Treatment Therapies

Treatment Therapy: Help for Teens With Mental Health Issues

This article is designed to answer common questions parents might have about mental health treatments for adolescents, and perhaps this information can help parents know what steps to take when their children seem ill at ease.

Broken bones, high fevers or itchy rashes are certainly unpleasant, but in a way, they’re reassuring to parents. When kids have these problems, parents know just what to do to soothe and bring relief. Crying, acting out or taking drugs, on the other hand, can fill parents with questions. Mental health concerns are much more difficult problems to unravel, and parents might not know just when a teen crosses the line from upset into danger. They may not know how therapy even works or why it might be needed.

At Muir Wood, we provide counselors via telephone who can answer questions about treatment options. If we don’t answer your question here, please feel free to call us.

When Is Therapy Needed?

Therapy among adolescents was once considered quite rare, but as the benefits of therapy become clear, more teens are taking advantage of the opportunity to partner with a professional to tackle the problems they face. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted in 2007, about 12 percent of those ages 12 to 17 received treatment or counseling in a mental health setting, while about 12 percent received similar care in an educational setting. Feeling depressed was the most common reason given for a mental health visit.

Teens might also visit a mental health professional for assistance with:

    • Self-confidence issues
    • Traumatic experiences or memories
    • Life changes, including death of a loved one, divorce or a chronic illness
    • Blossoming eating disorders
    • Self-harming habits
    • Thoughts of suicide
    • Learning disabilities

Anytime a teen feels overwhelmed by negative feelings or feels as though life is difficult or challenging, therapy might be an excellent way to assist. Even teens who don’t feel as though they would benefit from therapy might find that the skills they develop through this work can help them for the rest of their lives. Therapy might also be an excellent choice for teens who abuse drugs and/or alcohol. According to the Treatment Episode Data Set, 149,280 people ages 12 to 17 years entered therapy programs for addiction in 2007, and 71.9 percent of these teens reported that marijuana was their prime drug of abuse.

Substance abuse might seem like a phase that a teen might grow out of in time, but teens can also develop persistent brain changes due to adolescent drug abuse, and this can serve to lock the drug use in place and make it almost permanent. Without help, teens might take their addictions with them into adulthood, and they might face reduced opportunities as a result.

How Can Therapy Help?

Teens with mild and transient problems might benefit from the skills they develop in therapy. They might learn how to process the changes they’re facing in their lives with grace, for example, or they might learn how to communicate their feelings with words, instead of expressing their frustrations with violence or tantrums. Even brief therapy might be helpful for a teen with mild problems, working as a little push the teen needs to move past a problem and look toward the future.

Teens with more advanced problems have more to gain from therapy, as the situations they face could prove fatal. For example, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 3 percent of teens have an eating disorder, but most do not receive treatment for their condition. In therapy, teens might address the core beliefs or inner trauma that’s triggering the eating disorder, and they might learn how to handle those problems without using food as a weapon. Without therapy, these teens might continue to soothe their minds with unhealthy eating, and they could lose their lives in the process.

Untreated mental health conditions can lead to such a severe amount of stress and distress that teens might feel as though death is the only way out. The suicide rate among teens is distressingly high, with nearly one in six high school students seriously considering that option, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The impulsivity that mental health issues and drug abuse and addiction can cause could make a suicide attempt all the more likely. In therapy, however, teens might learn that there are solutions to their problems that don’t involve death, and they might feel their urge to die begin to fade.

What Kind of Therapy Is Available?

When most parents think of therapy for mental illness or addiction, they think of medication management. While it’s true that medications do have a place in the treatment program for some mental illnesses, a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine suggests that only 14 percent of teens with a mental illness take medications in order to soothe their distress. Many others heal with the help of therapy alone, and even those who take medication tend to do best when they’re provided with therapy as an adjunct to their pharmacological treatments.

Many types of teen mental health concerns can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Here, the teen is asked to come up with a list of people, situations or circumstances that seem to make symptoms worse. Then, the teen is asked to come up with a series of steps that could be used to help the teen either avoid those triggers in the future or deal with them differently when they arise. It’s a problem-solving approach, designed to help teens become both more aware and more capable. Teens tend to respond well to this therapy, and the lessons they learn can stick with them for the rest of their lives.

Some specific types of mental illness might benefit from targeted therapies. For example, teens with addictions might benefit from therapies in which they’re provided with small prizes when they can produce urine tests that are free of drugs. The prizes serve to reinforce the sobriety the teen is striving for, and they can help the teen to stay motivated to participate in therapy. Teens with anxiety disorders might benefit from specialized therapies in which they’re slowly reintroduced to the situations that bring out their fearful symptoms. This approach allows them to remember how to deal with fear in a healthy and strong way.

Therapists might also choose to include the family in a therapy program for a teen. The entire group can come together to learn more about the mental health issue, and they can resolve some of the damage that the mental health issue might have caused.

The group might learn to:

      • Communicate clearly
      • Share responsibility
      • Support without smothering
      • Disagree without arguing

Families like this tend to hang together, no matter what might come their way, and they tend to deal with problems as a unified group, rather than a set of individuals who just happen to live together. For families in crisis, this can be an excellent help.

How Can Parents Help?

While teens might tell their parents that they need independence and space, deep down inside, teens often have a deep affection for their parents, and they might need their love and support at increasing levels as they age. For example, a study in the Journal of Adolescent Research found that boys reported an increase in emotional intimacy with both their fathers and mothers as they moved from 8th grade to 12th grade. During this time, the things the teen might say and the things the teen might feel may not match up. Parents can help treatment to take hold by strengthening those bonds of affection by listening, praising and supporting. Just “being there” for the teen isn’t as helpful as taking an active role, asking the child to talk and then lavishing love and praise on any strides the child takes in therapy.

Mental health care sessions can be draining and difficult, and it’s not uncommon for teens to wish they could simply drop out and live a traditional life without any kind of therapy at all. Counselors might discuss these feelings at length with their clients, but parents can help by encouraging the child to participate in therapy and stay involved as long as counselors deem appropriate. That extra push from parents might help teens to stay motivated to remain in care.

In addition, parents who are asked to participate in family therapy should take their own appointments seriously, never skipping even one session, and they should work hard to incorporate the lessons of therapy into their own day-to-day lives. This kind of work can set a good example for teens in therapy, and it can help the whole family to heal just a little faster.

If you’d like more information on how you can help your adolescent son, or if we haven’t answered one of your vital questions in this article, please contact us. We have operators standing by who can answer any question you might have.

Further Reading