Magazine article Corrections Today


Magazine article Corrections Today


Article excerpt

Large numbers of mentally ill juvenile offenders continue to enter into and remain involved with the juvenile justice system. The exact number is unknown, however, it is clear that the prevalence of mental health disorders is higher among juvenile offenders compared to youths in the general population. [1] Juvenile correctional facility staff, as well as probation and parole staff, are supervising youths with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, mental retardation and psychotic disorder. Many of these offenders have co-occurring substance use disorders in addition to their mental health disorders, which present further challenges in identification and management. [2] Previous mental health treatment is common among juvenile offenders and many have been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities. Suicidal threats and actual suicidal behavior are not uncommon, nor is self-mutilation (self-injurious behavior without the intent to die).

Most staff have not been trained to identify, supervise or manage this complicated and challenging population. Even if knowledgeable and committed professionals want to use the most effective supervision strategies or refer youths to appropriate mental health treatment services, they often are unaware of the most effective strategies and treatments. The majority of juvenile justice professionals do not have formal mental health training and are unaware of how various mental health disorders are exhibited among adolescents. This lack of information may result in a variety of negative consequences for correctional officers, probation and parole officers, juvenile justice agencies and, most important, mentally ill juvenile offenders.

Given the increasing numbers of mentally ill youths entering and remaining in the juvenile justice system, it is critical that staff be trained on mental health issues. Having a mental health disorder does not necessarily excuse youths' actions -- mentally ill juveniles need to be held accountable for negative or delinquent behavior. However, juveniles should not receive sanctions specifically for their mental health symptoms. When staff do not understand mental health disorders, youths may suffer negative consequences, more restrictive placements and longer periods of juvenile justice supervision due to their illnesses.

Why Is It So Important?

The following is a brief review of why mental health training is important for juvenile correctional facility and community supervision staff:

* When a crisis occurs with a mentally ill juvenile offender, correctional staff must respond to the situation and the youth's behavior. If staff do not understand the nature of a youth's mental health disorder, they may unintentionally escalate the situation. This can intensify the juvenile's behavior and possibly worsen the youth's mental health symptoms. This can be dangerous for the juvenile and for staff.

* Although mental health professionals are involved with youths' treatment, typically, youths only interact with them on a limited basis. Even when youths have access to mental health professionals while incarcerated, they eventually will return to housing units. Line staff usually are interacting with juveniles throughout the day and evening. Youths in the community typically meet with their mental health providers once per week or less, if and when they actually attend their scheduled treatment sessions. Further, some juvenile offenders feel more comfortable telling correctional facility or community supervision staff personal information about their lives, families and mental health symptoms. Staff need to know how to react to this information, as well as how to respond to mentally ill youths.

* Whether in a correctional facility or the community, juvenile justice staff are responsible for supervising offenders with mental health disorders. Certain supervision and management strategies are more effective with mentally ill youths. …

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