Mental Illness in Juvenile Detention

Mental Illness in Juvenile Detention

Over 300,000 young Americans serve time in juvenile detention centers each year. About 70 percent of these detainees suffer from some form of mental illness and over 20 percent suffer from severe mental illness. Unfortunately, many juvenile detention centers are not equipped to meet the needs of their mentally ill occupants.

Much like in jails and prisons, juvenile detention centers host a large amount of individuals suffering from some form of mental disorder. Unfortunately, many detention centers lack the resources to provide proper care for detainees suffering from mental illness. The effects are the same at both the prison and juvenile levels–many of these mentally ill detainees will be released in the same condition or worse than when they entered.

One of the major problems that face detention centers are undiagnosed teens who have never received any sort of mental health assessment. Detainees who have undiagnosed illnesses may unintentionally be subjected to punishments that make their conditions worse, such as isolation or restraints. This creates a cycle where detainees continue to act out, are subjected to more punishment and continue to have their mental health deteriorate.

Entering into juvenile detention also presents a couple of other concerns. Those who have spent time in detention are much more likely to find themselves back in the judicial system as adults. Also, the suicide rate for detainees is four times higher than the rate of suicide for all juveniles. Mentally ill detainees have their own set of concerns, as they have a larger risk of victimization during their time at detention centers.

One remedy that can assist the struggling juvenile delinquent population is identifying mental illness early on. Juvenile detention centers should not be the first instance where detainees receive mental health services. The pressure can be taken off of detention centers by increasing the amount of law enforcement and 911 dispatchers versed in Mental Health First Aid so that they are able to identify young offenders who may be suffering from mental illness. Courts could also provide mental health screenings before sentencing. Assessing a juvenile’s mental state before sentencing can help judges assign punishments or treatments that can be more effective in preventing young offenders from becoming trapped in the judicial system.

The efforts of the Casey Foundation show that changes can be made at the community level. Detainees are disproportionately from impoverished, single-parent homes located in neighborhoods lacking in resources. The Casey Foundation has made significant changes in impoverished communities by providing more resources, collaborating with criminal justice systems and implementing other strategies. Their efforts have yielded dramatic and measurable results in communities in Illinois, Oregon and New Mexico.

Another measure that could assist youth who are already being detained is increasing the amount of mental health professionals in detention centers. Although many detainees do receive treatment for mental illness while serving their sentence, as many 50 percent of the detainees suffering from mental illness will go undiagnosed. Increasing staff or providing more training for the existing staff could allow centers to better meet the needs of the detainees.


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