The Mental Health Crisis in our Juvenile Detention Centers

Nearly three out of four youth in juvenile court detention centers in the United States suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues. Among the group, 20 percent suffer severe mental health problems, which limit their ability to function in daily life. Currently, our juvenile justice systems lack the ability to support and provide sufficient mental health services for detainees. These shortcomings have led to high rates of recidivism, and ultimately, have failed to rehabilitate youth in a vital ways.

It’s time for our country to reevaluate the mental health crisis in our detention facilities and begin to consider what alternative means of support we can provide for incarcerated and at-risk youth in our communities. According to an article by Forbes, “The prevalence of mental health disorders in the juvenile justice system is more than three times higher than in the general youth population.” This indicates that for many young people, detention in the juvenile system is serving as the solution, rather than preventative measures such as counseling or behavioral therapy. In order to rehabilitate and care for the large number of youth who now depend on detention centers for treatment, it’s important that we understand what they are facing.

93 percent of incarcerated youth report exposure to adverse events in their lives, according to a study by the Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Collaborative for Change. These events can include, but are not limited to, accidents, physical or sexual abuse, serious illness, and violence. On average, each youth reported six adverse events prior to their conviction. All of these experiences can trigger mental disorders including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Females in the juvenile justice system are particularly vulnerable, making them more likely than their male counterparts to suffer from these disorders, often at a more extreme level. Recently, the rate of incarceration of females has increased faster than it has for males, which further highlights the disturbing trend of using incarceration as an incidental means of treatment.

The current policies in place to support youth and their families fall short, from how behavioral problems are handled before incarceration to how youth are treated once they enter detention centers. In fact, research indicates that our institutions may be further harming the mental health of children and teens. A lack of resources and training has led to poor methods of treatment, especially for those with mental illness or substance abuse problems. For example, roughly 35 percent of juveniles in detentions centers have been put in forced isolation. According to an article by The Atlantic, “[isolation] wreaks profound neurological and psychological damage, causing depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, anxiety, and anger.” For an incarcerated youth whose brain is still developing, we simply cannot use the systems commonly found in our adult prisons. We need new ideas that honor the humanity of individuals and remind us of the potential all youth hold when they are healthy and supported. 

Nearly three out of four youth in juvenile court detention centers in the United States suffer from mental health issues.

Solutions to this injustice are readily accessible – researchers have proven that there are several things that can be done on both community wide and institutional levels to create a new future for thousands of youth. Canada provides one example of a successful transition from over-incarceration and under resourced correctional facilities, to rehabilitation and community-based programs. The Youth Criminal Justice Act has spurred reform in such a way that juvenile incarceration rates are at an all time low in Canada. According to one report, the Act acknowledges “the need for ‘intensive rehabilitation’ for a small segment of serious and violent young offenders; with the remaining youth being diverted into community placements and treatment setting.” It’s quite possible for the US to adopt similar laws and standards that will not only improve the lives of would-be detained youth, but our society as a whole.

The first step lies in prevention. Making counseling and therapy services available to youth in communities and schools is extremely important for a child’s well being, and also counteracts the possible conflicts that could one day present themselves if they continue to go untreated. Likewise, when dealing with behavioral problems in schools, it is important that teachers and faculty recognize that many mentally ill children are at risk of entering juvenile detention centers. Focusing on constructive discipline, and having trained professionals available for children that can both refer them to outside therapy and get them on track towards a successful future is imperative.

Second, knowing when non-violent offenses require community-based support as an alternative to jail time can help. Institutions within communities, including churches, need to understand and develop whole-family solutions that lead to recovery, and include long-term solutions such as mentoring.

Finally, when a youth arrives at a detention center, screening for mental illness should be one of the first things that occurs. In order for the detainee to receive appropriate treatment, a diagnosis must be established. Once an individual is diagnosed, police and juvenile justice staff need to have the proper training to effectively handle detainees. Likewise, facilities need a proportional number of counseling staff who have adequate tools to treat mentally ill juveniles.

In sum, our incarcerated youth need a new solution. Poor mental health is a disproportionate problem in detention facilities lacking much-needed advocacy in the US. Rather than using detention centers as a way to counter behavioral problems that are often brought on by severe trauma and duress, communities need to intervene on behalf of youth in new and different ways. Mental health is a fundamental part of holistic development, yet thousands of youth currently lack the tools they need for a better narrative. The dignity of all youth must be protected, and prioritizing their mental health and treating all according to their needs is the first place we can start.  

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C. Photo via TribTalk