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 Or a teen who used to enjoy socializing may suddenly become withdrawn.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 which may include outpatient therapy or treatment programs. 

Outpatient Therapy

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). 

Therapy may also involve the family. A therapist may want to address issues that affect the entire family, like divorce ongoing family conflict. 

Most of the time, therapy is 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.

Treatment Programs

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. 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.

Day treatment programs offer a variety of services, including:

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

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 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.

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

  • Academic programs
  • Family therapy 
  • Group therapy 
  • Individual therapy 
  • Multi-family groups
  • Occupational, recreational and art therapies 
  • Psychological testing

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.

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2 Sources
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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Teen Depression.

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