The most effective recovery therapies for teens and young adults help clients uncover the trauma and attachment wounds underlying mental health disorders. Whether a client is suffering from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or other issues, evidence-based therapeutic modalities are the key to recovery and sustainable healing.
Here are seven of the most widely used and validated mental health recovery therapies for young people. Our clinicians typically use these modalities in combination, or may specialize in one or more techniques, while tailoring treatment to a client’s stage of life, past history, and specific needs.
1) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This form of talk therapy is used for a wide range of mental health disorders. Therapists or psychologists use CBT treatment to help patients become aware of irrational or negative thinking so they can see situations clearly, process them, and learn to respond to them in healthy ways.
Although CBT helps with substance abuse, depression, and PTSD, teens and young adults can benefit from CBT even when they are not suffering from a specific mental health challenge, as it helps them to form healthy habits that will support them in adulthood. CBT is considered the gold standard of treatment approaches, as a large body of research has validated its effectiveness and successful outcomes.
One of the central tenets of CBT is that thoughts affect emotions, and emotions affect behavior. Following this logic, allowing distorted thoughts to grow leads to difficult emotions and, subsequently, destructive actions. On the other hand, positive thinking leads to positive emotions, and thus to positive behaviors.
2) Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
While DBT shares many concepts with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the main objective of DBT is to first stop a destructive behavior, then work on the negative thinking patterns that lead to that behavior. One unique aspect of DBT is the focus on acceptance of a person’s experience as the first step in the process of changing negative behaviors. The term “dialectical” comes from the idea that bringing together two opposites in therapy—acceptance and change—will produce better results than either one does alone.
DBT typically has two main components: individual psychotherapy sessions and group therapy sessions. Individual sessions with teens and young adults emphasize problem-solving behavior for any issues or troubles that may have arisen since the previous session. They also focus on decreasing and dealing with post-traumatic stress responses from previous trauma in the client’s life and improving their self-confidence and self-esteem. In group therapy sessions, which are led by a trained DBT therapist, young people learn skills from one of four different DBT modules: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.
3) EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
Initially developed specifically for the treatment of trauma and PTSD, EMDR utilizes an innovative approach that involves engaging brain mechanisms through repeated movements of the eyes. While it sounds like an unconventional approach, EMDR is an evidence-based modality that has been proven to relieve symptoms of trauma within a single session, with the positive effects maintained at a three-month follow-up.
When EMDR therapy is successful, the meaning of a painful, traumatic event is transformed at the emotional level. For instance, victims of violent crime move from fear and self-blaming to feelings of strength and possibility. Therefore, EMDR is an empowering approach that supports the client’s own intellectual and emotional healing processes to go into effect.
4) Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of mindfulness-based therapy that helps clients examine their thoughts and feelings, and subsequently make a commitment to creating change. Proven to reduce anxiety and depression, ACT supports teens and young adults to develop self-acceptance and self-compassion, reframe negative thoughts, and commit to actions that will enrich their lives.
Rather than setting out to solve problems or reach an expected outcome or goal, an ACT treatment plan helps clients understand that psychological pain is a universal experience. Instead of trying to control our emotions and experiences, we can change the way we think about and react to them. Therefore, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy exercises help young adults develop skills for reframing negative thoughts and behavior.
5) Creative Arts Therapy
Creative arts therapy—including music and visual art—is a type of experiential therapy that goes beyond words and the rational mind, tapping into a client’s most authentic self. According to researcher Shirley Riley, “Adolescents, in particular, are attracted to making symbols and graphic depictions. Therefore, they are more attracted to using art as language than to verbal questioning.”
Moreover, young people who find it frightening or uncomfortable to put their feelings into words can use creative expression—whether it’s drawing, drumming, or singing with others—as a way to process their emotions and share what they’re going through.
6) Adventure Therapy
This type of therapy works by allowing teens and young adults to venture outside their comfort zones to solve problems within a trusting, collaborative environment. Excursions typically include activities like camping, hiking, mountain climbing, kayaking, and ropes courses, alongside peers and guides. Mastering new challenges in a collaborative environment boosts adolescents’ self-esteem and social skills.
A study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies explored the efficacy of wilderness therapy for teens and found that it was enormously beneficial for 95 percent of participants. In fact, six weeks after the program, parents reported significant improvements in the behavior and mindset of the teenagers who participated.
7) Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT)
Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT) is an evidence-based approach for treating depression and preventing suicide in young people. This therapeutic modality, developed by Guy Diamond, Gary Diamond, and Suzanne Levy, utilizes a structured methodology that focuses on revitalizing empathy and authentic connection within the parent-child relationship, so teens and young adults feel safe turning to their parents for support.
The structure of this form of family therapy includes five distinct treatment phases, sometimes referred to as “treatment tasks,” each with its own clear goals and strategies. Each step of the process repairs ruptures in the attachment relationship.
These seven mental health recovery therapies, when delivered by credentialed and compassionate treatment providers, can help teens and young adults find long-term healing—so they can move into the future with self-understanding, healthy coping skills, and a positive outlook.