Mental Health Care and the Juvenile Justice System

Mental Health Care and the Juvenile Justice System

April 29, 2013 | Thoai Lu

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About five million children in the United States suffer from mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. Approximately 7,500 psychiatrists serve the needs of these children and adolescents; experts say we need closer to 20,000.[1]  Historically, an overlap has existed between the mental health care and juvenile justice systems, as people with mental disorders have a higher risk of criminal arrest.[2]  The difficult issue is measuring mental health care quality and accessibility within juvenile correctional facilities.

About five million children in the United States suffer from mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. Approximately 7,500 psychiatrists serve the needs of these children and adolescents; experts say we need closer to 20,000.[1]  Historically, an overlap has existed between the mental health care and juvenile justice systems, as people with mental disorders have a higher risk of criminal arrest.[2]  The difficult issue is measuring mental health care quality and accessibility within juvenile correctional facilities.

For example, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition released a report  last fall indicating that state juvenile facilities for girls are failing to provide adequate mental health support for victims of trauma.[3] Ana Yáñez-Correa, director of the coalition and an NCCD board member, said, “half of the girls surveyed in the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex told us that their time in county juvenile facilities either did not help or actually did more harm than good for dealing with their past trauma.”[4] 

On the other hand, Michael Griffiths, head of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, contended that the Jackson facility’s six highly trained mental health staff screen the girls “extensively for trauma-related behavior” upon arrival to the facility. Among his staff’s efforts to improve mental health for girls in the juvenile justice system, Griffiths said, is to request $15.2 million for juvenile probation departments to “address a significant gap in mental health services to juveniles under their jurisdiction.”[5]

While it is difficult to monitor how funds for mental health care are spent, ensuring adequate funding in the first place is critical to the emotional health of our children. The Children’s Mental Health Services Program predicts that at least 10% of federal spending on mental health care is slated to be cut if Congress and the President cannot agree on a new budget before March, which would result in the loss of access to care for approximately 1,300 severely emotionally disturbed children involved in their program.[6,7,8]

When our society fails to recognize and address the signs of mental illness in young people, we belittle the importance of initiatives like the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence (CEV)  that increase awareness of the cycle of violence from childhood into adulthood. To take an extreme case, no one knew much about Adam Lanza, who was responsible for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings  in Newtown, Connecticut. Yet the 20-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome and deep-seated psychological issues stunned the country with his actions, sparking a national conversation about gun-control policies.

Children who are victims of any form of abuse or even social isolation, like Lanza, need counseling and other programming. We should not wait for a catastrophe like Newtown to occur before we start caring about how our youth internalize trauma. While appropriating adequate funding for mental health care is not within our individual control, being aware of efforts like the CEV task force and President Obama’s unveiling of the Federal 2013 Budget  on March 1 is in our capacity, along with supporting proposals that address mental health care access to youth everywhere—regardless of whether or not they are involved in the juvenile justice system.[9]

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  [1] http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/20/americas-failing-mental-health-system-families-struggle-to-find-quality-care/

  [2] http://socialwelfare.berkeley.edu/Faculty/publications/sseg/Involvment%20with%20the%20criminal%20justice%20system%20Theriot.Segal.2005.pdf

  [3] http://www.texascjc.org/girls-experiences-texas-juvenile-justice-system 

  [4] http://www.texastribune.org/2012/10/24/report-funding-needed-juvenile-mental-health/ 

  [5] http://www.texastribune.org/2012/10/24/report-funding-needed-juvenile-mental-health/ 

  [6] http://www.ffcmh.org/sites/default/files/Sequestration%202012.pdf 

  [7] http://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/sequestration-obama-tax-and-spending-plan-already-doa-on-hill-87210.html 

  [8] http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/20/americas-failing-mental-health-system-families-struggle-to-find-quality-care/

  [9]   http://www.justice.gov/defendingchildhood/task-force.html