How Social Workers Help Youth in Detention with Mental Health Issues

The mental health of adolescent offenders has been identified as one of the single most important issues faced by the youth justice system today — and social workers are playing a vital role.

A report by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice (NCMHJJ) found that youth in the juvenile justice system had a history of traumatic experiences, with 93 percent reporting past exposure to “adverse” events including domestic and community violence, physical and sexual abuse, serious illnesses and accidents, with the majority exposed to six or more of these events.

The NCMHJJ believes that: “Many of these youth are unnecessarily placed in or referred to the juvenile justice system for relatively minor, non-violent offenses, often in a misguided attempt to obtain treatment services that are lacking in the community. However, the unfortunate irony of this approach is that the mental health services typically available to youth in the juvenile justice system are often inadequate or simply unavailable, as documented by a series of investigations conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice.”

Adolescent Triggers and Influencing Factors

Aggressive and antisocial behaviors frequently lead to the incarceration of youth. Rates of mental health disorders are extremely high among youth offenders – between 65 percent and 70 percent of the two million children and adolescents arrested each year in the United States have at least one mental health disorder.

Researchers believe that many young offenders could meet the criteria for conduct disorder, which is characterized by illegal and antisocial behaviors such as violence and stealing.

Conduct disorder (CD) is a mental disorder diagnosed in childhood or adolescence that presents itself through a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate norms are violated. These behaviors are often referred to as “antisocial behaviors.”

Juvenile offenders could also suffer from other mental health disorders, such as:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Substance-use disorders

The Role of Social Workers

Recognizing that the mental health needs of juveniles often go unrecognized and untreated, state legislators have created policy directives for prompt and complete evaluation of youth in the system, which now typically includes a team with a social worker.

According to the NCMHJJ, youth who immediately receive a mental health screening are more likely to have their problems identified and treated. Such screening has resulted in a more effective response to youth with mental health needs, including promoting awareness and competency among detention professionals in the state.

Social workers who work with juvenile offenders assist with mental healthcare assessment and intervention in a number of ways. They can conduct crisis intervention and ongoing face-to-face counseling, provide treatment assessments for appropriate programs, assess at-risk youth and facilitate group programs designed to enhance mental health.

Social workers can provide struggling youth and their families with an assessment of the teenager’s and family’s needs and strengths, which may help in their ongoing mental health treatment and care, as well as information about, and a referral to, necessary programs and services. They can also help arrange ongoing psychotherapy for the teen, the parents and the family as a whole.

This development of social services is aided by breakthroughs in social work delivery and programs, with social workers now gaining access to a range of new initiatives.

Working Within the System: Responsibilities and Limitations 

The youth justice system has a legal responsibility to provide mental health services to youth in custody, just as they must provide medical services to youth with other health conditions such as diabetes.

The justice system has a responsibility to protect the public and, while mental disorders are not the primary cause of most youth violence, they can be a factor.

The system also has process obligations; in particular, juvenile defendants must be competent to stand trial.

Mental disorders may lead to impairments in competence-related legal capacities, so this limitation must be considered when offenders are processed and sentenced.

Successful Early Intervention Programs and Strategies

Significant advances in research, program and resource development have resulted in a wide array of new tools and knowledge that can help improve the response to youth mental health issues. These include new research-based mental health screening and assessment tools and protocols, as well as new evidence-based intervention and treatment programs that produce positive and cost-effective results.

  1. Connecticut SBDI Initiative: Zero-tolerance policies in Connecticut schools were contributing to high rates of school arrest and expulsion, particularly for youth with behavioral and mental health needs.In response, the state created the School-Based Diversion Initiative (SBDI), designed to reduce the number of school arrests, suspensions and expulsions by linking youth with mental health needs who are at risk of juvenile system involvement with appropriate community-based services and support. The SBDI uses mental health responders provided by Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Service (EMPS) units to respond to incidents as an alternative to contacting the police or referring youth to juvenile court.Result: A 2012 evaluation of the program by the Connecticut Center for Effective Practice found that student arrests in participating schools had significantly decreased, as had suspensions and expulsions. At the same time, EMPS referrals and utilization had increased.
  2. Milwaukee’s Wraparound Initiative:  Wraparound Milwaukee is a project implemented in 1995, which successfully integrates mental health, juvenile justice, child welfare and education systems to provide services to young people.The Wraparound develops treatment plans that are tailored to address the unique needs of each child and family.Result: Evaluations indicate that the program is achieving positive results, with residential treatment decreasing by 60 percent since its inception and inpatient psychiatric hospitalization decreasing 80 percent.

Scientific research into adolescent brain function has also shone new light on the changing nature of a teenager’s brain, the impact this can have on behavior and a youth’s capacity to change as their brain matures. Understanding the changes taking place in the brain at this age presents an opportunity to intervene early in mental illnesses that manifest in adolescence.

Initiatives like these create great opportunities as a social worker to help turn the tide and make it less likely that adolescent offenders will reoffend. Effective assessment and treatment of juveniles with mental health needs can help break the cycle and produce healthier young people who are less likely to act out and commit crimes in later life.

Find out how you can make a difference to the lives of juvenile offenders with a career in social work.

Article Name
The Mental Health Needs of Juveniles in Detention
A high proportion of youth in detention have mental health disorders. Social workers can play a vital role in addressing their mental health needs.