Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling are Woefully Inadequate for Most Youths in Custody


Abused (Photo credit: Andrea Marutti)

The first national survey of kids aged 10-20 in state and local juvenile custody, the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement (SYRP), released in 2010, found that most of them had experienced trauma and suffered from one or more mental health or substance abuse problems, yet a majority of them (particularly those with the severest needs) received no counseling.

The report found that:

Thirty percent of confined young people had experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, 67 percent had seen someone killed or severely injured, and 70 percent reported that something bad or terrible had happened to them. Only 15 percent reported no trauma incidents in their past.

A large share of juveniles in custody reported behaviors that make it difficult to succeed in a conventional classroom, such as having a hard time paying attention in school (45 percent), having a hard time staying organized (40 percent), and being unable to stay in their seat (32 percent). Surprisingly, all three behaviors were reported at a higher rate by girls than by boys.

Anger problems were also rampant, with 68 percent reporting being easily upset, and 61 percent saying they lost their temper easily. Here, too, girls were more likely than boys to report problems.

Signs of more serious mental illness were also widespread. One in six confined youth suffered hallucinations, one fourth had elevated symptoms for depression, and substantial percentages reported: having suicidal thoughts (28 percent), feeling that life was not worth living (25 percent), or wishing they were dead (19 percent). Girls were far more likely than boys to report each of these symptoms. And, alarmingly, 44 percent of confined girls reported that they had attempted suicide, compared with 19 percent of confined boys.

Sixty-eight percent of confined children reported an alcohol or drug problem in the months preceding custody: 49 percent reported drinking many times per week or daily, and 64 percent reported taking drugs this frequently.

Despite these grave and widespread needs, only 53 percent of the 7,073 youngsters sampled in the SYRP report received any mental health counseling in their facilities, and only 51 percent got any substance abuse counseling. Youth with elevated symptoms for depression, anxiety, anger and hallucinations were less likely than kids with fewer symptoms to receive mental health counseling.

Moreover, 38 percent feared being physically abused in their facilities, 35 percent said staff used force against them when it wasn’t necessary, nearly half of them reported that staff in their facilities conducted strip searches, and one-fourth of the youth reported being held in solitary confinement.

A 2010 Justice Policy Institute research review on trauma-informed care for court-involved youth found that:

Confinement has been shown to exacerbate the symptoms of mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and the risk of abuse by staff or other youth can be traumatizing.

In particular, characteristics of correctional facilities such as seclusion, staff insensitivity or loss of privacy can exacerbate negative feelings created by previous victimization, especially among PTSD sufferers and girls. Youth in correctional facilities are frequently exposed to verbal and physical aggression, which can intensify fear or traumatic symptoms.

The survey also found that more than one-fourth of confined youth nationwide were held in facilities that did not routinely screen them for suicide risk, and more than half were in places that did not screen or assess all residents for mental health needs. In addition, suicide and mental health assessments were often completed by unqualified staff, and nearly 9 of every 10 confined youth nationwide resided in facilities that relied on unlicensed staff to deliver some or all counseling services.

Several organizations are today striving to rectify these problems.

Related articles

Building Blocks for Youth 

Findings from the First Ever National Survey of Juveniles in Custody 

Traumatic Pasts, Urgent Counseling Needs, Inadequate Services: Findings from the First Ever National Survey of Juveniles in Custody


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