Psychiatric Hospitalization for Teens

Teenage girl (16-17) talking to therapist

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If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Psychiatric hospitals provide the highest level of treatment available to teens and are intended for the short-term stabilization of serious mental health issues. A hospital setting provides a locked environment with constant clinical supervision to ensure their safety. 

When Is Hospitalization Needed?

Similar to a hospital for physical problems, a psychiatric hospital is set up to deal with mood or behavioral changes that come on suddenly and require intense structure and intervention to keep the teen safe.

Situations Requiring Hospitalization

  • Suicide attempt or self-harm
  • Threatening to hurt someone else
  • Inability to function

Ultimately, teens who are hospitalized are those who are at risk of hurting themselves or others, or who are unable to function.

Teens require different treatment from adults. So it's important for teens to be placed on an adolescent unit where the ​staff is trained in dealing with younger patients.

Treatment Methods

The two most important things to know about psychiatric hospitals are:

  •  The treatment is fast-paced and intense.
  •  The length of stay will be very short, usually for several days.

Hospitals for mental health issues are intended to thoroughly evaluate the crisis, act quickly to stabilize the teen, and develop a plan for continued care. A comprehensive evaluation begins at the time of admission and is completed by interviewing the teen, family members, and mental health or school professionals who have worked with the teen and can provide relevant information. 

This assessment considers the prior history of problems in mood or behavior, use of drugs or alcohol, previous treatment, physical illness or symptoms, and family history of mental illness.

Hospitals use a treatment team approach with an extensive staff of professionally trained personnel. Team members may include psychiatrists, psychologists, substance abuse counselors, therapists, social workers, nurses, activity therapists, teachers, and more.

Professionals from each discipline evaluate the teen and make recommendations for treatment both in the hospital and after discharge. While in the hospital, teens participate in numerous daily structured activities that may include:

  • Academic programs to help keep up with school
  • Family therapy focused on immediate concerns and next steps
  • Group therapy with other hospitalized teens
  • Individual therapy
  • Multi-family groups - many hospitals suggest families continue in these groups as part of aftercare
  • Occupational, recreational and art therapies 

Some may receive psychological testing, although the vast majority may not.

Discharge Planning

Discharge planning refers to specific plans made for the aftercare or follow-up treatment the teen will participate in upon leaving the hospital. Depending on how well the teen responds to treatment in the hospital, follow-up programs will be recommended.

Some teens may require residential treatment, while others may benefit from day treatment.

If medication and efforts at stabilization create significant changes then a lower level of care such as an alternative school or intensive outpatient therapy may be appropriate. Once the reasons for the crisis are identified and a teen is considered stable by the treating psychiatrist and hospital staff, a case manager will work on the discharge plan. 

A case manager works with parents on setting up aftercare services. Referrals to a therapist, psychiatrist, or other service provider will be made. Usually, a case manager will set up follow-up appointments to ensure that the teen remains healthy once she's discharged home.

Sometimes, parents feel like a teen is being rushed out of the hospital. They fear their teen hasn't recovered enough or they worry that safety issues aren't completely resolved.

It's important to make sure you have a clear understanding of your teen's discharge instructions; follow-up with ongoing service providers to keep your teen mentally healthy.

Unfortunately, short stays are the reality of psychiatric hospitals. They are expensive to operate and are intended to assess the teen, stabilize the crisis, and provide expertise in helping transition the teen into a less intensive program.

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