Helping the Parents of Youth
with Mental Illness in the Juvenile Justice System
By Don Smarto
During the last decade, mental health hospitals
and community counseling centers across America have closed at
an alarming rate. With the current state of banks, the housing
industry, and the stock market, the fiscal crisis will put a greater
burden on families below the poverty level. Youth who exhibit
symptoms of mental illness in the general population are on average
not receiving treatment for three years.
Those youth who enter the juvenile justice system will experience
a reduction in available psychologists and psychiatrists. America's
prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities have become a "dumping
ground" for the mentally ill.
Parents often lack a support system to help their
child and those in the system experience a double stigma. There
are myths about "criminal offenders" and myths about
"mental illness". In general, the public assumes all
criminals (including juvenile offenders) and people with a mental
illness are dangerous, violent, and are products of bad parenting.
This is not true. But the myths of "morally weak", "lacking
will power" and "incorrigible" create a stigma.
Parents are embarrassed and reluctant to seek help for their child.
13.5 million parents in America do not seek timely treatment for
their children with depression, eating disorders, bi-polar symptoms,
and schizophrenia. 26% attribute this (3 year) delay to the "social
stigma" of the disease.
Professionals need to educate parents about 1)
Timely Treatment, 2) Community Counseling, and 3) Hope of a Meaningful
Job & Education for their child. In Texas in 2007 27,000 youth
in the juvenile justice system received treatment. That sounds
good until you consider the fact that 129,000 youth were diagnosed
with mental illness. The sad fact is many community mental health
centers have closed. Billions of dollars flow to other countries
but in America many of our citizens are not being treated for
lack of funding. Families who live below the poverty level are
without resources and feel forgotten.
When a mentally ill youth enters the juvenile
justice system it is a "double whammy" since both carry
a stigma. Parents say "he will grow out of it" or "she
is going through a phase. But that is simply denial. Children
show symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia before the
age of 14. That is why parental education and early treatment
Lack of insurance and services are increasing
mental health symptoms which frequently facilitate criminal charges
and lead to facility violations when in a restrictive setting.
Symptoms like "talking loudly", "challenging authority",
and "destruction of property" become Disturbing the
Peace, Resisting Arrest, Criminal Damage to Property, and Assault.
Problems formerly solved by school principals are now criminalized
by the police. Mentally ill youth incarcerated are often victims
of abuse, manipulation, taunting, and are bullied. They are often
released with increased fears, anxiety, and paranoia.
Of the 13.5 million people previously mentioned
who delay getting treatment for the mental illness of their children,
26% report the "stigma" of the label. Consider the words
used in our culture like "crazy", "nuts",
"deranged", "psycho", "Looney",
"wacko", and "mad" and the array of horror
films about escaped lunatics from asylums. These images add to
the poor stereotypes of people with mental illness. Most are not
dangerous or violent. Most can lead meaningful lives and have
The word "insane" is a legal term not
a medical term. It refers to the ability 1) to know an act is
illegal, 2) know right from wrong, and 3) have control over behavior.
Generally the courts will accept psychosis as a defense but not
a personality disorder. While John Hinckley was considered insane
for the assassination attempt of President Reagan (he has been
in a mental hospital for 27 years), David Berkowitz who murdered
6 people and shot 14 was considered sane, as was Jeffery Dahmer
who killed 17 young men and engaged in dismemberment, necrophilia,
and cannibalism. Clearly the law has inconsistencies.
There are three times as many mentally ill in
our prisons than in mental health hospitals that have fewer than
80,000 patients. At least 1/3rd of all homeless people are mentally
ill. And 23% of juveniles in the system who have a mental illness
will enter the adult prison system. 10 million adults pass through
jails and prisons each year. 282,800 of these inmates have a severe
mental illness. Another 547,800 mentally ill are on probation.
In prison, the mentally ill are called "bugs".
They are physically and sexually abused, manipulated, taunted,
bullied, locked in isolation, ignored by staff, and even tasered.
This is a sad situation which makes their condition worse.
There are 147 psychiatric prison facilities in
America. But counting all federal and state prisons, private and
county jails, there are 5,133 facilities in this country. Most
do not get adequate treatment in adult facilities.
Mental illness usually begins in childhood. But
without treatment, many will move into the adult system where
the numbers of mentally ill prisoners has quadrupled in the last
The parent of such a child is frightened and overwhelmed.
They need a support system of other parents facilitated by a professional.
They need education and family counseling. Without post release
support, many of these youth will become homeless, runaways, addicts,
or suicidal. The family is the first line of defense and the best
hope for a healthy, functioning life. Schools, probation, social
workers, and psychologists need to work together in assisting
families move from the "dark ages" of fear and denial
into a new age of hope, networking, treatment, and education.