Teenage mental health conditions: assessment and diagnosis
Getting your child’s symptoms of mental illness assessed and diagnosed will help you and your child choose the right mental health treatment.
A mental health assessment should help you understand your child’s current symptoms. It should also help you spot any possible triggers that might make your child’s condition worse or obstacles that might stop them from getting better.
If you’re concerned that your child might have mental health issues, your GP is a good place to start for a mental health assessment. The GP can refer your child to the right mental health professional.
Treatment plans for teenage mental health conditions
Your child’s mental health assessment should result in a treatment plan that aims to improve your child’s wellbeing and reduce their symptoms. It can also aim to build your child’s strengths and support their development.
The plan should focus on things that your child finds difficult, or that trigger your child’s symptoms or make them worse.
As part of the treatment plan, the mental health professional might say your child needs a particular type of treatment or therapy. You can understand what a treatment or therapy can do for your child by asking questions and writing things down when you’re with your child’s mental health professional. It’s also OK to phone afterwards if you want more information.
Some common teenage mental health treatments and therapies are explained below.
Anger and stress management
Anger is a natural and powerful emotion. Getting angry is natural. Anger can range from mild annoyance to rage. When anger is expressed in violent or uncontrollable ways, it can become a problem that needs treatment.
If your child has a problem with anger, anger management can help your child get control of their temper. Talking treatments like cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), behaviour therapy or counselling can work with anger management. Therapists can also teach your child practical skills to use when they feel angry.
Stress management and relaxation training can also help young people learn to manage anger.
Behaviour therapy is a major component of CBT, but it’s also a separate therapy.
Behaviour therapy focuses on your child’s behaviour. The therapist will plan activities that help your child develop skills to deal with difficult situations. The therapist will also use a step-by-step approach to help your child conquer their fears.
Cognitive behaviour therapy
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is a structured psychological treatment that recognises that the way we think (cognition) and feel affects the way we behave.
CBT helps your child recognise unhelpful or unhealthy thinking styles and behaviour habits. Your child then learns to consciously and deliberately change their thinking as a step towards changing the way they feel and behave.
CBT can be used to treat problems including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, uncontrollable anger, substance abuse, eating disorders and other problems. Your child can have CBT one on one with a professional, in groups or online.
Counselling is a ‘talking therapy’.
If your child sees a counsellor, your child will talk about their situation with the counsellor. Counsellors don’t offer advice. Instead they help your child make their own decisions and find their own solutions.
Counselling is usually a one-on-one therapy.
Art, music and dance/movement therapy are all forms of creative psychotherapy that can help your child cope with emotional, relationship or behaviour problems.
Mental health professionals use these therapies to help your child understand, communicate or express themselves in new and more positive ways.
E-therapies are also known as online therapies or computer-aided psychological therapy. Some therapies – for example, CBT and behaviour therapy – work well as e-therapies.
Most e-therapies teach your child how to identify and change patterns of thinking and behaviour that might be stopping them from overcoming anxiety and stress.
E-therapies can work just as well as face-to-face services for some teenagers with mild to moderate anxiety and/or depression. But they’re not for teenagers in crisis or who are seriously unwell.
Family therapists work with your child and the people who are important to your child, especially family members. This can be really useful because close relationships are often the way to help someone recover from difficulties and improve life.
During a family therapy session, a family therapist encourages family members to think about each other’s viewpoints, experiences and beliefs, find constructive ways of supporting each other, and solve problems together.
Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a type of psychotherapy based on the idea that how people communicate and interact with others can affect their mental health.
The goal of interpersonal therapy is to help your child understand how their experiences of social interactions and issues – for example, at school or in relationships – are affecting their mental health. The therapist will help your child improve their communication skills and manage their emotions.
Some teenage mental health conditions can be treated with medication. Medications can help reduce symptoms.
If a medical professional prescribes medication for your child, the professional will usually combine the medication with other therapy and support to help your child get better.
Mental health medications can have side effects. For example, some medications cause weight gain. For this reason, mental health professionals will also say that your child should stay active and eat a healthy diet throughout their treatment. Staying fit and healthy and getting enough sleep can have a big effect on your child’s mental health.
If your child has a mental health condition and the mental health professional prescribes medication, your child usually has the right to decide whether to take the medication.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and manufacturers of antidepressants do not recommend antidepressant use for depression in young people under the age of 18 years. But guidelines published in 2011 indicate that fluoxetine can be considered for children under 18 years with moderate to severe depression.
There’s clear evidence that, for adults, practising mindfulness can have health benefits.
For example, studies suggest that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can reduce stress and have some positive effects on other mental health issues, and that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can maintain treatment gains made for depression, prevent relapses and be as effective as an antidepressant.
There’s growing evidence that mindfulness is also effective with children and teenagers.
Psychotherapy aims to help your child to understand their problems better.
In psychotherapy, a trained therapist will talk with your child about your child’s thoughts and feelings. Your child and their therapist will work on the way your child thinks about things and try to understand how your child interacts with others. The aim is to help your child manage problems in different ways.
Psychotherapy is usually a one-on-one therapy, but it can also happen in groups or with family members.
During and after mental health treatment
As your child progresses with a course of treatment, your child might need to go back to the GP for a review. This is especially the case if your child has a mental health care plan with the GP. Along with other mental health professionals working with your child, the GP will watch and review your child’s progress to make sure the treatment is working.
Depending on your child’s progress, the GP or your mental health professional might suggest alternative approaches. Or they might suggest that your child keeps going with the current treatment.
At the end of treatment it can be good to review your child’s progress and celebrate their achievements.