But let’s not forget that there are many outstanding programs working hard to help kids and their families. I know how wrenching it is for parents who decide to send their child to one of these programs. I am one of those parents.
Adolescence is hard. Social media’s carefully curated images and constant reminders of parties and other events teens may be excluded from have added to other pressures. And we are only just starting to see the effects that technology has had on a generation that has grown up with smartphones. Depression and anxiety among teens were issues even before the coronavirus struck, and pandemic-driven isolation has intensified some mental health issues. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 34. Many struggling kids turn to substances to try to cope with their feelings. Young people ages 15 to 24 account for 11 percent of overdose deaths, according to 2019 data from the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics.
Most parents find ways to help their kids at home. But some kids need full, wrap-around treatment, and they need to get out of the environment exacerbating the problem — whether it is family dynamics, peers or both.
My son is in his fourth treatment program. He struggled early on with anxiety. Unlike many families, I was able to afford excellent mental health care. Yet despite early intervention from therapists and psychiatrists, he continued to struggle in ways that I feared put him at risk of serious consequences. When he was 15, I made the hardest decision I have ever made: to send him away to a therapeutic boarding school. Such schools and residential treatment programs offer academics in a boarding-school-like setting but with individual and group therapy as well as access to psychiatric evaluation and medication.
It took all of my strength not to cry in front of him when I dropped him off. I cried all the way home.
Of the four programs my son has participated in, three were amazing and one was good — just not a great fit for him. I am so grateful to the incredible professionals — therapists and staff — who help kids struggling with eating disorders, tech addiction or the other myriad issues kids face today. In my experience, no parent or guardian makes the decision to send a child away lightly. They do it when their teen gets in legal trouble or when their child’s behavior takes too big a toll on the rest of the family. They do it when they have tried everything and nothing else works.
I have come to know many parents on this challenging journey. All love their kids fiercely and are fighting to get them the help they need to live healthy and productive lives. On a Zoom parent meeting last year, one dad said: “Most of my friends are debating which college their kid should go to — I worry about keeping my son out of jail.” For many parents, that is all too real.
The financial burden of this experience is its own issue. These programs are expensive, and many don’t offer financial assistance. Health insurance, if it helps, often covers only a tiny fraction of the cost. I have met parents who have taken out a second mortgage to afford the help their child needs. Those who have 529 savings accounts for tuition costs can’t use them to cover these programs, even though many include educational components in addition to therapy. In some cases, Medicaid will help with the fees.
And due diligence is necessary. Online searches for “wilderness programs” or “residential treatment programs” yield a ton of links, many of which appear to be objective websites seeking to help parents. But most are just trying to drive business to their program. It is easy to build a nice website. Parents need to know what the program’s approach is and whether they have licensed professionals to work with your child. You want to know that your child will be safe and not be punished or shamed.
While there are horror stories of kids’ terrible experiences, I know far more families who would say these programs saved their kids’ lives by helping them through an incredibly difficult period.
All this is to say, from a parent’s perspective: Congress should absolutely regulate the so-called troubled-teen industry — not to eliminate it but to ensure standards that protect vulnerable kids.