Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Introduction to adolescent mental health
Introduction to adolescent mental health

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1 Diagnosis and sense-making

The causes of mental illness are disputed, complex and are underpinned by differing theoretical perspectives – which are also referred to as models.

A photograph of a filing system with the following labels: mental health, psychiatry, disorders, bipolar, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia.
Figure 2

What this means is that there are different types of explanation:

Table 1: The different perspectives
A social perspective focuses on the environment and the different roles that people play. It also considers adverse experiences, negative life events and childhood adversity, such as exposure to violent behaviour, poverty, abuse, bereavement, parental divorce or separation, parental illnesses and/or non-supportive school or family environments
A psychological perspective emphasises the role of thought and emotional processes and individual cognitive development in how a person will interpret their negative life events and how this may possibly affect their behaviour
A biomedical perspective looks at brain structure and function, and is likely to see mental health problems/illnesses in relation to how the brain works and is influenced by hormones and an individual’s genes, with other issues merely operating as triggers

In reality, none of these three perspectives alone can provide all the answers to what causes mental health problems in adolescence. They are often combined in what is called a bio-psycho-social model which recognises the importance of considering biological, social and psychological factors when attempting to understand and treat a young person’s mental health. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) is a government run organisation whose guidelines suggest that when healthcare professionals are assessing children and young people, they should routinely record social, educational and family situations. This includes the quality of interpersonal relationships (both between the person and other family members and with their friends and peers), thus acknowledging that family issues need to be taken into consideration.

Next, you’ll return to Tanya Byron’s interview offering her perspective on assessing a young person’s mental health as a clinical psychologist. In the activity, you’ll ‘unpack’ the extract of Tanya Byron’s interview with Professor John Oates.

Activity 1: Unpacking the terminology

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Step 1: Below is the transcript for the interview extract. Read through it and hover over the highlighted technical words to access the glossary definition for each.

Tanya Byron: Well in a sense when I’m working with my colleagues, when I’m working with my teams, and we are assessing a young person, we tend to think in sort of blocks of theory, and in a sense through careful assessment, both qualitative assessment with the young person, with their family, often with schools and teachers. And sometimes with their friends. I mean if the young person, for example, is very depressed, or unable to communicate, friends are often a very useful resource of information. We are literally sort of kicking down different hypotheses that we may have about why this young person is presenting in crisis. So, to begin with we might wonder whether there are some neuro-developmental issues, is there something actually at a brain level that is making life increasingly challenging through this complex time? We obviously want to know what is going on at home, is there a specific amount of stress, risk factors, whether it is abuse or domestic violence, or just discord, marital breakdown and discord in the home that is contributing to this young person’s difficulties. Some young people may show very context-specific difficulties. So if I’m meeting young people where they are generally doing okay, but struggle really specifically at school, and are getting a lot of negative feedback, beginning to feel like they have failed, maybe becoming the person that they are being told they are, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, they stop thinking, they stop learning, they misbehave. We might then want to explore specific learning difficulties, you know, finding young people with very good IQs, but actually with learning difficulties, whether they are to do with sensory integration, or to do with dyslexia, or dyspraxia. Whatever we are looking at, it would help us explain why this young person, understandably struggles in that particular learning context.

John Oates: So that sounds pretty wide in the sorts of theoretical orientations you are drawing on, but are there specific therapeutic approaches that you take, or would you say you really have to match that to the case?

Tanya Byron: We do have to match therapeutic approaches to the case, which is why the most effective way of working with a young person, because of the system that they bring with them, is within a multi-disciplinary team. So, even though I would lead the team, I would rely on the expertise of my colleagues, who come from different skillsets, to be able to contribute to the assessment. And then sometimes themselves do further specific assessment, for example educational assessment, or neuro-developmental assessment. Sometimes you know much more sort of specific – we might have to scan some young people’s brains, erm, or even more psychotherapeutic colleagues, who might want to work with families and understand the family narrative. So it is quite complex, and in a sense as a consultant my role is to sort of navigate that, and to … what we do as clinical psychologists is we create what we call a formulation. In a sense we are creating an evidence-based narrative to the presenting difficulties. And actually just explaining to a young person, and their family what we think might be behind what is going on for them can be a very empowering experience, because once you understand a problem, to some degree you are almost in a much better position to try and solve it. So, yes, it is about navigating the complexities, sticking with an evidence-based model, and evidence based therapeutic approaches. And always working collaboratively with the young person, because obviously they need to be very much central to the treatment, they need to take ownership of it. It is their life, and so they also need to inform us and help us understand where we might not be quite hitting it in the right place for them. Communication is vital really.


Professionals who work in a particular field of practice develop a specific vocabulary that can sometimes make communication difficult between people with different types of life experience or expertise. It is important not to feel intimidated when faced with specialist language you are not familiar with, and perfectly acceptable to ask for further explanation in a conversation with a specialist. Professor John Oates is a specialist academic and would have been familiar with the language. You are provided with a glossary here but in other circumstances, a good dictionary is invaluable, especially if you are sent a letter or read something that is full of terms you don’t understand! It is also important to note that healthcare professionals base their practice on the best evidence. By contrast, the ‘myths’ perpetuated on social media and in everyday life are based on very little evidence.







The correct answer is a.


Tanya is predominantly talking about a social perspective here.