By Raising Children Network, with NSW Kids and Families
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Teenage schoolgirl in counselling session
A teenage mental health assessment is when a health professional tries to understand how your child’s mental health is affecting her quality of life. If you think your child has mental health issues, assessment is one step towards getting help and treatment if needed.

What is a teenage mental health assessment?

‘Assessment’ is just another word for an appointment, consultation or interview – or series of appointments – with a health professional such as a doctor, psychologist or counsellor.

A teenage mental health assessment is about your child and the health professional developing a good relationship, and the professional getting a good understanding of how your child sees the world and the problems he’s having.

Why your child might need a teenage mental health assessment

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between normal teenage worry or moodiness and more serious mental health issues.

Most normal teenage irritability, arguing and moodiness come and go quickly. But when they persist for 2-3 weeks or are very intense for even shorter periods, it can be a sign that it’s more than just worry or feeling down.

If your child doesn’t want to see friends, or is spending most of the time by herself, it’s a sign that you need to take action.

Also if your child stops doing things he usually enjoys, isn’t doing so well at school or is taking more risks than usual, this could be a sign that he’s feeling very anxious, depressed or stressed and might be helped by having a mental health assessment.

The best place to start is your GP, who will either be able to help you directly or refer your child to another professional.

What happens in a teenage mental health assessment?

You or your child might have a specific problem in mind when your child goes to see a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist. But the first interview at least will look generally at the issues that are affecting your child’s wellbeing.

The professional will talk with your child about her thoughts, feelings, moods, behaviour, relationships and other things like school, work and home. The aim is to find out how your child’s mental health is affecting her quality of life.

How long mental health assessment takes
A mental health assessment is usually longer than other health appointments. It might take more than one appointment or visit, so that the professional can really understand your child’s issues. The length of assessment depends a bit on your child’s age and maturity too. If your child is older, he’ll probably be OK with longer interviews.

The advantage of things taking a bit longer is that your child gets a good chance to make sure she’s comfortable with the health professional.

Having a good relationship with the health professional has a big impact on how well mental health treatment is likely to work for your child.

Seeing your child alone
The professional will usually want to speak with your child alone, for all or part of the mental health assessment.

Being alone with the professional can help your child talk openly about his worries. If you’re there, he might feel embarrassed about speaking openly, or might not want to talk about sensitive or private issues.

When your child should start to see a health professional alone is something you and your child can work out together.

Teenage mental health issues
A teenage mental health assessment will start with the least sensitive issues – for example, home, school, interests and friendships. Then it will move on to more sensitive areas, such as sexuality and drug use. It will also cover more serious mental health issues like anxiety, depression and self-harm.

The professional might not always work through each area in order or spend equal time exploring every area. Your child will get the chance to tell her story too.

Holistic approach to teenage mental health
The health professional will take a holistic approach. This means that the mental health assessment will look at your child’s unique characteristics and qualities in relation to his social and cultural world.

For example, the professional will talk with your child about her personal beliefs and spirituality and how they might affect health. The professional will also talk about physical and mental health symptoms and behaviour.

A teenage mental health assessment probably won’t be all talk. The professional might use art, music, photos, play therapy, drama therapy or stories to get your child’s perspective on things. The professional might also use formal tests to check anxiety, depression, learning ability or substance use.

Talking to you about your child’s mental health
The health professional will want to talk to you and possibly other members of your child’s family, kinship group or community to get an overall impression of your child’s issues.

Depending on your child’s age and maturity, the professional will ask your child first. For example, the professional might say, ‘I usually like to speak with people’s families – is that OK with you?’ If your child objects the health professional will follow this up with you and your child.

After a teenage mental health assessment
At the end of a teenage mental health assessment, the professional will give you an opinion about what the issues and problems are and suggest a treatment plan. The professional will also say if your child has an emergency that needs immediate action.

It’s a good idea to make sure your child’s treatment plan has clear goals that your child and your family can achieve. For example, a goal might be getting up at the same time each morning, going for a walk each day, or keeping a brief diary of thoughts and feelings. It’ll also help if you’re positive and hopeful about the treatment plan.

Although you might want to know what has happened and what was said at the mental health assessment, your child might need some time before he talks about things with you. He might decide not to share what happens at his mental health appointments. This can be hard, but it’s your child’s right.

Video Adolescent mental health: introduction

In this video health professionals take you through teenage mental health services. They explain the difference between normal teenage moodiness and something more serious. If you’re concerned about your child’s wellbeing, these professionals encourage you and your child to talk to the school counsellor or GP. It’s also important to find out about local teenage mental health services that can help your child.
Your support can have a direct and positive impact on your child’s mental health. In fact, there’s a strong link between the quality of parent–teenager relationships and teenagers’ mental health and wellbeing.

Preparing your child for a mental health assessment

Being honest and talking with your child about the concerns you have for her wellbeing can help your child get the most from mental health consultations and treatment.

How you talk to your child about a teenage mental health assessment will depend on your child’s development. You know your child best so you can judge what and how much to explain, but here are a few guidelines.

Children 9-11 years
If your child is in these pre-teen years, it’s likely that he still thinks in fairly concrete terms and about things related to himself. He’s probably concerned about whether he’s normal and the same as his friends. He follows the rules of his social group and values friendships highly.

This means that your child needs accurate information, but not too much of it. When you talk about the appointment, you could:

  • explain that the aim of the mental health assessment is to help both you and your child understand how and why her feelings and/or behaviour have changed lately
  • reassure your child that there’s nothing wrong with visiting a mental health professional – it’s like visiting a doctor
  • tell your child that you’ll go into the appointment with her if she wants
  • reassure her that what she tells the professional will be private and confidential
  • let her know that you’re not going to trick her into going to appointments.

Children 12 years and older
From the age of 12 years, children think more deeply about things and begin to question authority. Your child makes up his own mind about issues.

At 12-15 years, she can understand consequences better, thinks about right and wrong, starts to develop her own identity and thinks about what she wants from life. She thinks about other people’s points of view, but she’s still strongly influenced by peers.

So when you talk about the appointment, you could:

  • reassure your child that there’s nothing wrong with visiting a mental health professional
  • talk about what he can expect to get out of going
  • talk about confidentiality and privacy
  • visit websites together to read other young people’s stories – try Reach Out and Headspace 
  • talk or give him information about different kinds of services – such as counselling, seeing a psychologist or going to his GP – and explain briefly what the different health professionals do
  • let him know that you’ll go by yourself even if he doesn’t want to, because you think it’s important for your family to get some help
  • tell him you’re happy to go with him and that you’ll also respect his privacy.
If you approach teenage mental health issues with kindness, openness, hopefulness, tolerance, confidentiality and encouragement, it helps your child to accept help.

Getting ready for a mental health assessment: practical tips

Before the first appointment, find out:

  • what the meeting will cover
  • how long it will last
  • whether you need to take anything with you – for example, school reports, test results or medication
  • whether the professional will want to see the whole family or only your child
  • what approaches the health professional will use when working with your child
  • whether there’s a cost for the mental health assessment.

You could also:

  • make a list of questions so you get all the information you want
  • negotiate with your child if you want time alone with the health professional
  • take a note pad or tablet to write notes
  • let the service know in advance if you need an interpreter 
  • let the health professional know if your child wants a particular person to go with her.

When your child won’t go to the mental health assessment

Most teenagers don’t ask to be taken to see a mental health professional. If your child does, take his request seriously and arrange an appointment as soon as possible.

If your child is reluctant to see a mental health professional, it might help if a trusted family member or friend talks to your child – but avoid tricking her into going. For example, it’s not good for trust if you tell your child you’re taking her shopping when you’re actually taking her to a mental health assessment.

Here are some ways you can encourage your child to see a mental health professional:

  • Speak to your child about changes you’ve noticed – for example, changes in his mood, behaviour, relationships or schoolwork – and that you’re worried about him.
  • Explain why you think seeing someone might be a good idea – for example, you think it might help your child to talk with someone outside the family who’s good at helping young people.
  • Give your child information about the services that are available – for example, counselling and psychology – and how they can help.
  • Explain that the health professional won’t tell your child what to do but will suggest things and help her find solutions to problems.
  • Explain that going to a mental health assessment isn’t a punishment and that you’re not suggesting counselling or psychology because you’re angry with him. You just want to help.
  • Explain that you’ll help her to make an appointment, or will make one for her, but that you expect her to go to it.
It can also help if you talk to the GP or your child’s school counsellor about your concerns. It might be that your concerns are unfounded and don’t need following up, or the school counsellor or GP might be able to help you with what to do next.
  • Last updated or reviewed 14-01-2014
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Youth Health and Wellbeing Team, NSW Kids and Families (formerly Centre for the Advancement of Adolescent Health).