My teen's professional help didn't work - what next?

Father and daughter on laptop

Written by Dr Andreea Heriseanu, Clinical Psychologist

It can be hard to know what to do if your teen has had an unhelpful experience with a mental health professional. You may be worried that their mental health issues are going to get worse, or you feel frustrated that the treatment they’ve received so far hasn’t helped them. This is actually a common experience – and it’s not your fault, or your teen’s fault.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to mental wellbeing. Finding the right professional (or team of professionals) and identifying the right kind of treatment is a fine balance, and something that has worked well for someone else may not work for your teen. Here are some steps to help you and your teen deal with this issue.

Open up communication

It’s more likely that your teen will open up if you’re patient, let them know that they can talk to you about anything, and are non-judgemental. Try to really listen to their concerns about what hasn’t worked in their treatment so far, and encourage them to stay hopeful (even if you do feel concerned), as this will help motivate them to keep looking for help. Let them know that you are in this together, and that you’re willing to help in any way that feels comfortable to them.

Find the right professional

It can take a while to find a mental health professional who ‘clicks’ with your teen – and your teen doesn’t have to stick with one who doesn’t. It’s perfectly okay to get second opinions, too. There are lots of mental health professionals out there (including mental health-informed GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists), and a good fit is definitely possible. In most cases, it’s helpful to encourage your teen to see the same psychologist for a few sessions before deciding whether to continue with them, as this will give the therapist time to get to know your teen.

By listening to what’s important to your teen, you can help them find someone they feel better able to relate to. You might look for someone with experience with young people, or with your teen’s specific concerns, or from a similar culture or gender to your teen. Offer to be as involved as your teen would like – for example, to help them find a specific person or service, or to make their first appointment, or to identify a list of options to look through.

It’s also possible that your teen isn’t engaging with therapy for reasons not related to the mental health professional, so it’s good to check in with them around this.

Find the right type of mental health professional

Some young people might feel more comfortable with one type of professional over the other. For example, some young people might feel like they can better connect with someone who's been through a similar experience, like a peer worker. Peer workers are trained mental health professionals who have their own experience of tough times and mental health challenges, and recovery. This experience helps them to form a strong connection with those going through similar mental health challenges. They can listen to what’s going on with your teen and help them feel more empowered to figure out what to do next.

What peer workers do is known as ‘peer support’, which recognises that we all learn and grow from each other, and that support can be found in many places outside of a traditional clinical setting. Peer support can be helpful for your young person if, for example:

  • they’re hesitant to see a GP or psychologist

  • they feel feel more comfortable opening up to someone closer to their age

  • they feel more comfortable connecting with someone who has been through similar experiences

  • they haven’t been able to relate to mental health professionals they’ve seen in the past

  • they just want to try out getting support.

Find the right treatment

The good news is, there are many evidence-based treatments for different mental health difficulties. Psychological therapies with a good evidence base include: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Motivational Interviewing (MI), Mindfulness-Integrated CBT (miCBT), and Schema Therapy (ST). Generally, your teen will work with a psychologist to decide which type/s of therapy are best for them. Also, there are many different psychiatric medications, including for common issues such as depression and anxiety. Sometimes, a combination of a psychological therapy and medication can work better than either treatment used on its own. For medication advice, your teen will need to see their GP or psychiatrist.

Remember: change takes time

Both medication and therapy take a while to start having an effect. It’s important to keep expectations in check – both yours and your teen’s. For issues like depression, antidepressant medication can take four to six weeks to start working, and for other issues such as OCD, it’s closer to 12 weeks. Psychological therapy also takes a number of sessions (6–20, depending on the complexity of the difficulties) before changes take place. It’s best for the young person to check with their mental health professional about what to expect.

Choose a treatment format

There are a number of different modalities of delivering support and treatment: not just traditional face-to-face consultations, but also telehealth (video or phone) sessions, as well as online treatment, or consultations via web chat, email or SMS. Your teen may feel more comfortable with some of these formats for accessing treatment than with others. For example, some young people are more comfortable talking by text, or it may be possible to have appointments with someone experienced in the area that’s of concern to them who isn’t available locally.

Develop your own skills

Ideally, your teen will seek help themselves, but it’s possible they might refuse to engage with mental health professionals if they’ve previously had a bad experience. In this case, you can get some training or coaching yourself from a mental health professional in strategies that will help your teen.

What to do after a bad experience

If you know or suspect that something inappropriate has occurred with a previous mental health professional, check out the process for making a complaint to AHPRA. AHPRA is the national agency that provides registration and enforces standards of practice for health professionals (including GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists). It’s important that you believe what your teen tells you about the experiences they’ve had.

Finding help from other mental health professionals

Here are some ways to find more helpful professionals or services who can help with ongoing treatment:

Directories for finding mental health professionals:

Online treatment for young people:

Remember that mental health is complex, and that it’s not your fault, or your teen’s fault, if the help they’ve accessed hasn’t worked so far. Many different kinds of treatment are available. Even if it takes some trial-and-error, it’s important to remember that it’s possible for you and your teen to find and access suitable support and to get back on track.