What to Do When You Have a Teen in Crisis

youth in crisis

Many different factors can lead to a teen experiencing a crisis. They may have a mental health condition that interferes with their ability to function and interact with others, or they might be using drugs or alcohol in ways that are harmful to them.

They might also be dealing with a recent trauma or loss. It’s important to know the warning signs of a teen in crisis so they can seek help.

What is a Crisis Center?

A crisis center is a place for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis to receive services. They provide support and referrals to providers for ongoing care in the community. Most are non-profit and rely on volunteers.

Crisis centers can be a telephone crisis line, a walk-in clinic or psychiatric urgent care, or a 23-hour crisis stabilization unit (with a maximum stay of 23 hours and 59 minutes; after that people are transferred to ongoing treatment). They may also offer mobile crisis teams and outreach programs.

It is important for clinicians to be familiar with the crisis resources in their state/community before a crisis occurs so that they can provide their patients with appropriate referrals. They can also help advocate for funding and support to ensure that the community has a robust network of crisis programs to choose from when the need arises. A nationally recognized crisis center, such as the Lifeline network, can connect callers to counselors in their own area who are familiar with local services.


A teenager in crisis can be assessed by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, who will ask questions about the teenager’s symptoms and behavior. They may also use self-report questionnaires or psychological tests to gather additional information.

A uniform assessment is a tool used to help determine the severity of the youth’s crisis and which behavioral health services they may need. It includes a clinical interview and a dialogue about the child or teen’s needs, strengths and concerns.

It is important that youth receive treatment promptly to prevent further harm or loss of life. Teens who go untreated often develop maladaptive coping behaviors and habits that interfere with their lives and lead to long-term negative outcomes. Developing innovative strategies to address youth in crisis can help them move forward with their lives and become productive members of society. For example, developing alternative responder models and diversion policies can help keep youth out of the justice system for low-level offenses related to family conflict or behavioral health.


As adolescence and adulthood beckon, youth in countries affected by war or poverty struggle to emerge from situations that have trapped them in cycles of despair. Many attempt to fill an economic vacuum by joining armed factions and street gangs, and they risk being drawn into sexual exploitation.

Often, the most effective approach to stabilization involves meeting youth where they are in their lives. Using Medicaid funds, several states have created mobile crisis teams that offer immediate services in schools, where they can help students navigate through their own behavioral health crises.

In addition, a number of programs have developed comprehensive systems of care that link young people to home- and community-based service (HCBS) providers, counselors, and wraparound support services. These comprehensive programs can often be financed using Medicaid dollars, as well as local and school funding. For example, in Oklahoma, a crisis data dashboard flags trends and helps staff respond quickly to communities experiencing an uptick in youth behavioral health crises.


Leaving mental health needs untreated can have serious, long-term negative consequences.2 This is especially true for youth. Pediatricians are in a unique position to address the crisis, with regular well-child checkups that give them an opportunity to de-stigmatize the need for mental health care and to watch out for warning signs of mental illness.

Treatments include individual therapy (also called psychotherapy or counseling), group therapy, recreational therapies and support services. They can be delivered in a variety of settings including schools, community agencies, clinics and therapists’ offices.

Residential treatment centers provide 24-hour supervision for children and youth who need to be away from their homes due to psychiatric, psychological or behavioral problems that cannot be managed in home or community based treatment. These facilities are often referred to as therapeutic group homes. Residential treatment may also include medication administration and review, special education, behavior therapy and recreation therapy.