As a society, we are finally reducing the stigma around mental health—and youth mental health in particular. The topic has permeated our culture and become one of the most talked-about issues on social media, in schools, and in the news. Collectively, we have been forced to acknowledge what our adolescents are experiencing, and try to understand why they are in so much pain. Experts have studied the impact of the pandemic and the years leading up to it to determine the contributing factors—including loneliness and isolation, collective trauma, and the negative effects of social media.
This growing awareness of mental health issues is something to celebrate. But it’s not the ultimate goal. Research shows that 25 percent of teens are suffering from depression, 40 percent are struggling with anxiety, and close to half have felt consistently sad and hopeless over the past year. A study encompassing 14 US states found that the adolescent suicides have increased overall since the pandemic began. And yet, 60 percent of youth who are struggling don’t receive any mental health services at all, according to Mental Health America.
Awareness is the first step—but awareness alone is not enough. In order for more young people to receive the treatment they need, families must take the next step and overcome obstacles to care, both practical and psychological. Mental healthcare providers, school professionals, physicians, and others who work with teens must move beyond education to support these families in taking concrete action.
How to Recognize When a Teen Needs Professional Support
It’s not always easy for parents to know when to take action to ensure a teen receives mental healthcare. Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, CCTP, Newport’s Chief Experience Officer, recommends taking your child’s mental health temperature on a regular basis. Here’s how.
There are also signs to watch for that indicate a teen may be heading toward a mental health crisis, including:
- Inability to function in day-to-day activities
- Sleeping excessively or not being able to sleep at all
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or speaking coherently
- Auditory or visual hallucinations, including ringing sounds or seeing lights
- Anxiety that interferes with basic functioning
- Delusions, including feeling indestructible or beyond human
- Psychosis, or complete detachment from reality
- Self-harm, suicidality, or suicide attempt.
Most important, Kristin says, is to trust your intuition. “Parents usually know when something is going on with their teen that needs attention, and they should listen to their gut,” she says.
Understanding Treatment Options
A mental health assessment with a doctor or clinician is typically the first step in accessing treatment. Subsequently, families will be given an initial diagnosis and a recommendation for one of the various types of adolescent mental health treatment. Teens with acute diagnoses—when symptoms are very serious and parents are often at their wit’s end—typically need a higher level of care, such as an inpatient hospital stay or residential treatment. For adolescents with symptoms and behavioral issues that are not as severe, a lower level of care may be sufficient.
Treatment options for teens include:
- Weekly therapy, online or in person
- Medication prescribed by a psychiatrist, which should always be accompanied by ongoing therapy
- Outpatient programming at an outpatient treatment center or community mental health program (up to five days a week, either full days or after school)
- Inpatient care in a psychiatric hospital or the psychiatric unit of a hospital, usually for no more than 30 days
- Residential care in a home-like setting, typically for at least 30 days, including academic programming to help teens stay on track with their education.
Newport Academy offers a full continuum of care to address teens’ and families’ specific needs and treatment goals.
What Prevents Families from Seeking Care
Even when they know or suspect that a teen needs additional support, parents sometimes hesitate to seek treatment, or face obstacles that prevent them from accessing care. Here are some of the primary reasons families don’t take action to get professional help for a teen who is struggling.
Many families don’t seek treatment because they don’t realize that affordable mental healthcare is an option. As recently as 20 years ago, clients were forced to pay out of pocket for mental health and substance abuse treatment. Today, many insurance payers cover outpatient and residential treatment programs. And they are much more willing to provide coverage when they know that a program offers safe, effective, and clinically driven treatment.
Shortage of Providers
The lack of mental health providers specializing in adolescent care is a significant factor hindering access to care. More than 70 percent of US counties do not have a child or adolescent psychiatrist. A 2022 study found that 85 percent of primary care practices are having difficulty accessing behavioral healthcare resources for their patients.
Despite the growing awareness around mental health, not all families feel comfortable admitting their child needs help and seeking treatment. In some family cultures, ethnic groups, or religions, mental health is still not spoken about, and anxiety or depression may be seen as a failure of willpower or self-discipline.
Shame and Fear
Even in cultures where mental health is more openly discussed, parents may have difficulty facing the reality of what their child is experiencing, and their role in it. “Every parent who comes through our doors is desperately afraid they’re going to find out it’s their fault,” says Danielle Roeske, PsyD, Newport’s Vice President of Operations for Residential Services. “One of the first things we help them to understand is that no one is to blame here. That’s not what this is about.”
Resistance from Teens
Even when teens are in distress, they can sometimes be resistant to treatment. They might think it’s embarrassing to need therapy, or they might be defensive and guarded. They might feel hopeless about ever getting better, or skeptical about whether treatment will work. However, as Newport’s outcomes research shows, even teens who are not motivated at intake quickly develop a strong working alliance with their therapist and agree on treatment goals. Moreover, they show steady improvement in symptoms, well-being, and academic engagement.
Difficulty Choosing a Treatment Program
Families are sometimes overwhelmed by the range of options, and don’t know how to tell which programs will provide safe and effective treatment for their child. However, there are various signifiers that indicate whether a mental health treatment program provides the highest-quality care. Here are the questions to ask when researching treatment.
5 Ways to Take Action Today
Moving from awareness to action saves lives. Here are five ways to help a teen who is struggling get help and support as quickly as possible.
- Find an outpatient mental health center in your area. Outpatient clinics often provide free assessments and will refer individuals to other facilities or options if outpatient care is not appropriate.
- Contact your insurance company to find out about your coverage for mental healthcare and what treatment facilities they work with. Many people are not aware that their policy includes coverage for their child’s mental health treatment.
- Ask your pediatrician or other healthcare provider for a referral or a list of mental health providers in your area. Keep going down the list until you find a therapist who will take new clients and preferably accepts your insurance. If they’re not taking new clients, ask them if they’ll help you find someone who does, or if they are willing to do an assessment to help you determine the right level of care for your teen.
- If a teen is in crisis, call 911 or go to the emergency room of your local hospital. Here’s how to navigate an ER visit for mental health.
- Call us. Newport Healthcare’s Admissions counselors will help you determine what level of care may be appropriate for your child and support you with the insurance verification process. If Newport is not the right fit, ask to be transferred to our Clinical Outreach representative in your area to find out about the other options available to you.
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