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How Social Workers Help Struggling Teens (page 2)

By — National Association of Social Workers
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

Cost of Programs and Services

Programs and services for struggling teens can be very expensive. Some families are able to pay for these programs and services “out of pocket.” Some families have health insurance that pays for all or part of the program, or the public school system may pay the cost.

Many families cannot afford needed programs and services, do not have adequate insurance, and are unable to obtain funding from their public school department. In some instances families that cannot afford needed services agree to give legal custody of their teen to the local public child welfare agency, which then funds the services or programs (in several states the public child welfare agency will fund services without requiring that parents hand over legal custody). In still other circumstances, desperate parents may turn to the juvenile or family court and formally request that the teen be declared “wayward,” thus enabling the court to require the child to accept intervention. In these cases the state typically pays for needed services and programs. Some parents may be reluctant to use this route to services because the court, not they, determine where the child goes for help.

There is a wide range of services and programs run by private and public agencies for struggling teens and their families. Some programs may be available locally; however, some programs may be in other communities or states, which means that the teen must live away from home in order to receive needed services.

Crisis Intervention

A broad range of professionals and agencies offer crisis intervention and follow-up counseling services to teens and families. These services may be available through family service agencies, community mental health centers, hospital outpatient clinics, public child welfare departments, and psychotherapists in private practice (such as clinical social workers, clinical and counseling psychologists, mental health counselors, pastoral counselors, psychiatric nurses, and psychiatrists).

Many communities offer comprehensive counseling and family-intervention programs specifically for teens and families in crisis. These programs – known by names such as “comprehensive emergency services” or “comprehensive intensive services” – provide home-based assessment, emergency counseling, information, and referrals for longer term help.

Special Schools and Programs

A variety of alternative schools, therapeutic schools, and treatment programs serve teens who struggle with significant behavioral, emotional, mental health, and substance abuse issues. Some programs, such as alternative high schools, focus primarily on education while being sensitive to students’ mental health and behavioral challenges. Other programs, such as residential treatment programs, therapeutic boarding schools, and wilderness therapy programs, focus primarily on mental health, emotional and behavioral issues, while including an educational component. “Emotional growth” boarding schools address mental health, emotional, behavioral, and educational issues simultaneously. Other boarding schools focus on specific learning disabilities while also paying attention to the whole student. In short, different programs give different degrees of emphasis to personal and academic issues.

Parents of struggling teens – particularly teens who are oppositional and defiant – may be tempted to place their child in a school or program that promises to impose needed discipline and structure. Often these schools and programs – such as some military boarding schools and those that advertise their mission as “character education” – do not provide the mental health services many struggling teens need. These schools and programs can cause more harm than good for struggling teens who have personal and mental health issues that contribute to their challenges.

Prominent program options include:

  • Alternative high schools provide education, including special education services to teens who have floundered academically or socially in traditional high schools. These schools may be freestanding or sponsored by a community mental health center, family service agency, school district, or a “collaborative” composed of several social service and educational programs.

  • Youth diversion programs typically attempt to help struggling teens who have had contact with the police avoid more formal involvement in the juvenile justice system (juvenile courts and correctional facilities). Typical youth diversion programs offer first offenders individual and family counseling, links to other needed services (such as psychiatric medication), and education.

  • Independent living programs are designed to help adolescents develop the skills they need to live independently. These programs primarily serve teens who do not have stable families and are in the state’s custody. Some independent living programs also serve teens whose families are able to pay for these services privately. Typical services include practice in daily living skills, money management, career and educational planning, mental health services, housing assistance, recreational, and social activities and case management.

  • Wilderness therapy programs offer highly structured intensive short-term (three to six weeks) therapy in remote locations that remove adolescents from the distractions available in their home communities (such as television, music, computers, cars, drugs and alcohol, movies, delinquent peer groups). The challenges of living full-time outdoors and developing wilderness survival skills help teens develop self-confidence and pro-social behaviors. Often, families are advised to send their struggling teen first to a wilderness therapy program and then to a therapeutic or emotional growth boarding school, rather than return the teen to their home community environment.

  • Boarding schools for teens with significant learning disabilities offer structured academic programs that focus on education and learning while addressing relevant emotional and behavioral issues.

  • Emotional growth boarding schools offer structured academic programs and focus on emotional development and personal growth but do not provide the intensive treatment services offered by therapeutic boarding schools.

  • Therapeutic boarding schools focus intensively on students’ mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral needs while also providing an academic educational program.

  • Residential treatment centers offer highly structured treatment addressing substance abuse, family, and other mental health issues. In contrast with therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers are more like a psychiatric hospital than a school, although they may have an academic/educational component in their program.

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