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  1. Youth Topics
  2. Mental Health
  3. Treatment Options For Youth With Mental Health Disorders

Treatment Options for Youth with Mental Health Disorders

In the United States, 75 to 80 percent of children and youth in need of mental health services do not receive them.1 This can be for a variety of reasons, including

  • discrimination and negative attitudes attached to seeking help for mental health issues,
  • cultural beliefs and practices,
  • access to services/supports,
  • availability of providers,
  • not knowing where to start, or
  • confusion about who to see and what advice to take.

Treatment Approaches

Mental health treatment can includes a variety of different approaches and occur in a variety of settings. Services provided depend on the needs and choices of the youth and his or her family, and the diagnosis and severity of the problem. They may consist of services such as psychotherapy with an evidence-based practice, peer mentoring, care coordination, medication, or a combination of all approaches.

Youth may be receiving services in specialty treatment centers, educational settings, general medical settings, or a combination of settings. In 2008,

  • 12.7 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 received treatment or counseling for problems with behavior or emotions in a specialty mental health setting (inpatient or outpatient care);
  • 11.8 percent of youths received services in an education setting;
  • 2.9 percent received mental health services in a general medical setting in the past 12 months; and
  • 5.3 percent of youth received mental health services from both a specialty setting and either an education or a general medical setting (i.e., care from multiple settings).2

Systems of care, a framework for collaboration, can help to facilitate coordination of services and supports for young people with mental heal needs and their families.3 

The family and youth need to be involved in the planning and implementation process from the beginning of the treatment since the context the youth lives in is extremely important in helping determine his or her treatment.

Information for Identifying Services and Supports

Key Questions for Parents

There are many questions that parents and caregivers can ask when seeking help for their child or youth with behavioral health challenges. Examples include:

  • What is your experience in working with children with issues like the ones my child has?
  • What is your approach or philosophy?
  • Are you aware of effective treatments for my child’s issues?
  • How involved will I be in treatment and how will you keep me informed of my child's progress?
  • Will I be involved in helping to set goals for treatment?
  • How will I know if my child is getting better?
  • How long does treatment typically take and how will I know when my child has finished treatment?
  • What should I do if I have a crisis between treatment sessions or I need immediate help?
  • What should I be doing at home to help support my child’s treatment? 4

Guides for Families

There are also guides to assist families in making informed choices about treatment for their child or youth such as the SAMHSA Family Guide to Systems of Care for Children With Mental Health Needs which is available in both English and Spanish. Sometimes there is confusion about the definitions and roles of the various behavioral health disciplines such as the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. The Child Health & Development Institute of Connecticut has provided a short guides describing the frequently asked questions for mental health in schools, infant and early childhood mental health, and child trauma.

Resources for Identifying Services

Additionally, there are a variety of avenues through which to seek help. SAMHSA has a behavioral health treatment services locator which provides a searchable map containing comprehensive information about mental health services and resources across the country. Additional services can be found through exploring the following:5


Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
This Locator, developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, provides comprehensive information about mental health services and resources and is useful for professionals, consumers and their families, and the public. Search by state, zip code, and service type to find resources available in your area.

Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General
This Report of the Surgeon General on Mental Health is the product of a collaboration between two federal agencies, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health. The report provides an overview of mental health as well as a section targeted at children’s mental health. Sections of this report include information on interventions and service delivery.


1 Kataoka, et al 2002
2 SAMHSA, 2009
3 SAMHSA, 2006
4 Child Health & Development Institute of Connecticut, n.d.
5 American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2004

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