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My Teen (& I!) Need Help! Navigating Mental Health Services for Teens

Raising teenagers is difficult at the best of times, but even more so if your teen is struggling with mental health or behavioural issues.

Unfortunately navigating mental health services can be far from simple. Mental health treatment is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

There are some key factors to consider when getting help for your teen. These are the factors that can help you make informed decisions & find the best treatment fit for your teen.

  1. Severity: How much are your teen’s symptoms affecting their life & yours? What counts as severe? Factors such as:

  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

  • Self harm

  • Eating behaviours that are having a significant impact on health

  • Hallucinations, delusions or other signs that someone is losing touch with reality

  • Symptoms that are stopping someone from doing what they usually would (eg. Attending school, work or other enjoyable activities)

If you identify severe symptoms in your teen, the most appropriate mental health support may come from a public mental health services (such as the local Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service), or a specialised private service such as a private hospital or a private service that specialises in higher levels of support.

2. Treatment History: Has your teen tried other mental health treatment in the past? Are things still not improving?

If previous treatment attempts have failed, it may be your teen needs a different approach.

Look for the following:

  • Services that specialises in medium to long-term support programs, rather than brief interventions

  • Has experience & knowledge managing complex & long-term mental health needs

  • Is able to offer a different kind of approach than your teen has tried before (eg.Tried CBT with no success? Try DBT, EMDR or ACT instead- see table for more info)

3. Specialty Knowledge: What specific problems is your teen struggling with? It’s important to match the right treatment with the right person.

Think about it like this… if you are having chest pains you don’t want to see a podiatrist! It’s the same with mental health- there are many different specialities that take different approaches. It’s the fit that matters.

Try the following:

  • Look up reputable information about your teens symptoms & see what type of treatment is recommended (see attached table as a guide)

  • Look for specialist practices that target those symptoms. For example, if your teen is struggling with anxiety, look for a service that specialises in anxiety & works with teens. If your teen is struggling with self harm, look for a dialectical behavioural therapy service that targets those specific problems.

A final consideration….

Don’t ever think your teen is just too ‘difficult’ or ‘complex’ for treatment to work… they just haven’t found the right treatment yet! Keep looking & asking for help- it’s out there!

Type of Treatment

Symptoms Targeted


Pros & Cons

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Anxiety/ Depression 

Adjustment disorders 

NFD (neurological functional disorder) 

Skills focused 

Targets distorted & unhelpful thought patterns

6-10 session treatment duration

Pros: Widely practiced

Strong evidence-base

Cons: Limited efficacy for complex symptoms 

Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)

Emotion dysregulation

Self harm/ suicidality 

Difficulties w/ engagement (eg. teens)

Disordered eating 

Complex PTSD 

Borderline Personality Disorder 

Skills focus + therapeutic relationship focus 

Med to long term treatment

Groups, 1:1 sessions & support between sessions 

Pros: Strong evidence-base.

Designed for more complex & ‘treatment-resistant’ conditions.

Cons: Not widely practiced (in full) 

12-months + for full program 

Higher $ due to intensity & duration of treatment 

Trauma Therapy


Focuses on talking about & recalling traumatic memories.

Pros: Treats underlying cause of symptoms

Cons: Not safe for those with Complex- PTSD; risky behaviours or suicidality 

Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR)


Uses eye movement exercises to process past trauma.

Pros: May relieve symptoms quickly for ‘simple’ trauma (eg. 1x traumatic event)

Cons: May not be safe for those with Complex- PTSD; risky behaviours or suicidality 

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Anxiety/ Depression Emotion dysregulation Adjustment disorders 

Based on concepts of acceptance & commitment to identified goals & values.

Uses metaphors & other cognitive concepts to illustrate ideas.

Pros: Fair research base

May benefit those who tend towards control themes

Cons: Not many practical/ body-based skills 

Requires cognitive processing skills 

May not be suitable for risky behaviours 

About the Author: Alex Wilson is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker & Director of Mindful Recovery Services & the Central Coast DBT Centre, providing psychological treatment & support for adolescents & adults.

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