Treatment Programs for Teens Experiencing Depression

Depressed teens sometimes need residential treatment to heal

Depressed Teen

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Symptoms of depression often become apparent during adolescence, though teenage depression may look different from depression in adults. A normally active teen may become lethargic. Or a teen who used to enjoy socializing may suddenly become withdrawn.

Depression is very treatable with the help of professional intervention. Left untreated, however, depression can get worse and it may affect all areas of your teen's life. Their grades may decline, they may stop spending time with friends, and they may have trouble meeting their responsibilities. 

It's important to be on the lookout for warning signs that your teen may be depressed. If you recognize warning signs, it's essential to get professional help. Treatments for teen depression may include outpatient therapy, medications, or treatment programs. 

Therapy Treatment Options

Outpatient therapy is often a very effective treatment for depression. Talk therapy may involve helping your teen change the way they think or it could involve changing some of their behavior that reinforces their feelings of depression (like sleeping all day on the weekends). 

Types of therapy that may be helpful for teens with depression include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps teens learn to recognize and change the negative thought patterns that tend to contribute to symptoms of depression.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): IPT works by helping teens improve their communication and interpersonal relationships. 
  • Family therapy: Therapy may also involve the family. A therapist may want to address issues that affect the entire family, like divorce and ongoing family conflict. 

In most cases, therapy is delivered on an outpatient basis. Outpatient therapy is a treatment that does not involve being admitted to an inpatient setting, such as a hospital or residential treatment program.

Medication Treatment Options

Antidepressants can also be helpful and effective in the treatment of teen depression. Those that have been FDA-approved to treat teens include Prozac (fluoxetine) and Lexapro (escitalopram). However, other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are sometimes prescribed off-label for the treatment of depression in teens. 

These medications help relieve symptoms of depression by impacting the functions of neurotransmitters in the brain.

However, it is important to be aware that all antidepressants carry an FDA black-box warning of an increased risk of suicidal thinking in children and young people under the age of 25. For this reason, teens are carefully monitored by parents and their doctors while taking antidepressants, especially during the first few weeks after starting treatment.

Medication may be used on its own, but it is often prescribed alongside psychotherapy interventions. Research suggests that medication is most effective when it is combined with therapy.

Treatment Programs

Most of the time, therapy and medication are very helpful in reducing symptoms of depression. Occasionally, however, symptoms don't get better. And they might even get worse. If therapy doesn't work, a teen may need a higher level of care.

When to Consider a Treatment Program

It may be time to consider a treatment program for a depressed teen when:

  • They are actively suicidal.
  • They are using drugs or alcohol.
  • Their depressive symptoms significantly impact their ability to function in daily life.
  • They are not responding positively to outpatient therapy or less intensive treatment options.

There are several different types of treatment programs available to teens. A therapist or your teen's pediatrician will usually refer your teen to the best program for their case.

Day Treatment Programs 

Day treatment programs, which are ideal for teens who don't need 24-hour care, offer a structured, supportive environment during the day. They can help a teen who is struggling in school or otherwise having significant problems in trying to cope on a daily basis with their depression.

Day treatment programs offer a variety of services, including:

  • Clinical assessment
  • Individual, family, and group therapy
  • Rehabilitation activities

Teens may attend for the majority of the day and then return home in the evenings. Often, programs coordinate their school to allow the student to continue their normal daily routine while providing extra support.

Residential Programs 

Residential treatment centers and therapeutic boarding schools are specifically designed to treat mental health disorders. They are staffed to provide constant supervision and therapeutic support. These programs are set up to treat mental health disorders by providing the following services:

  • Academic programming
  • An individualized treatment plan
  • Individual and group therapy 
  • Psychiatric care, including medication
  • Alternative therapies, like art therapy or pet therapy
  • Discharge planning

Residential programs that may not be well suited for teens with depression, and which in some cases can worsen the symptoms, include wilderness therapy and boot camps, as these programs may not provide adequate mental health support for the treatment of depression. 

Hospital Programs

A depressed teen who is suicidal may need to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital in order to ensure their safety. The primary goal in this setting is to decrease suicidal thoughts by providing structure, medication, and intensive therapy.

Hospital stays are short, fast-paced, and intense and most teens need to transition to a residential program for further treatment. Sometimes the hospital treatment can be involuntary.

If you or your teen are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 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.

During their stay, teens often participate in activities such as:

Helping Your Teen Cope

Don’t be surprised if your teen insists nothing is wrong or is resistant to treatment. Many teens are embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or confused by the symptoms of depression. Be patient and do your best to explain to your teen that there is no shame in seeking help. Be available to listen to their concerns and encourage them to talk to you about any fears they may be having.

If your teen outright refuses to get help, you can talk to a therapist to come up with new ideas and skills for helping your teen better cope.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Teen Depression.

  2. Fornaro M, Anastasia A, Valchera A, et al. The FDA "black box" warning on antidepressant suicide risk in young adults: More harm than benefits?Front Psychiatry. 2019;10:294. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00294

  3. Cuijpers P, Sijbrandij M, Koole SL, Andersson G, Beekman AT, Reynolds CF 3rd. Adding psychotherapy to antidepressant medication in depression and anxiety disorders: a meta-analysisWorld Psychiatry. 2014;13(1):56-67. doi:10.1002/wps.20089

  4. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Residential Treatment Programs. September 2016.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.