Voices of 'Privileged' Youth: The Lived Experiences of Affluent, At-risk Adolescents in Residential Treatment

Esperat Lein, Andrea, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Reeve, Ronald, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

The need for comprehensive, clinically-sound therapeutic programs for at-risk adolescents is high. While promising efforts have been made to examine the effectiveness of a rising number of private therapeutic programs and schools, few of these studies have taken into account the thoughts and opinions of their primary consumers—affluent adolescents. Researchers have found affluent youth in the U.S. to be at greater risk for serious psychological maladjustment compared to norms, but little is known about their actual experiences with mental health treatment. To date, no published study has sought to deeply understand the experiences of affluent youth utilizing mental health services in a therapeutic boarding school setting. This qualitative study was designed to fill this gap in the literature.

Using a phenomenological approach, five adolescents from affluent backgrounds participated in three individual in-depth interviews, guided by the primary research question: “What are the lived experiences of affluent, at-risk adolescents who attended a private therapeutic boarding school?” Their responses were analyzed using an approach described by Moustakas (1994), in which their stories were eventually combined into one collective voice. Themes related to the importance of peers, community, and a sense of agency and autonomy emerged as key findings. Participants related that a voluntary and non-stigmatizing approach helped them when more traditional therapeutic approaches had failed in the past. Finally, other key themes emerged concerning the importance of strong academics, the development of non-cognitive factors, and the role of life purpose and meaning. These findings highlight the importance of clinical and educational practices that will enhance the experiences of at-risk adolescents receiving treatment in therapeutic residential boarding schools.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
adolescent mental health, affluence, residential treatment, gifted youth, at-risk youth
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