It's time to set our sights on lowering the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system, and mental health is a critical factor that cannot be ignored. Nationally, a large proportion of youth in the juvenile justice system — between 50 percent and 75 percent - have at least one mental health condition. In Harris County, the estimate is 52 percent.
Why is mental health a factor? When left undiagnosed and untreated, a mental illness or emotional disturbance can cause symptoms and behaviors that get adolescents in trouble in school, at home or in the community. Parents, teachers and other adults who work with kids may not realize that negative or delinquent behavior can be a sign of mental illness. Even if they suspect mental illness, many families don't have the insurance, money or eligibility to get help.
Zero-tolerance policies in schools often criminalize adolescent behavior tied to mental illness. A report, to be released soon by law center Texas Appleseed, says minor infractions such as cursing, disrupting class and truancy used to be handled by the school principal but are now treated as misdemeanors or worse. Earlier reports from Appleseed revealed that a disproportionate share of minority and special education students are being suspended and expelled from Texas public schools for noncriminal, nonviolent offenses.
Severe responses such as ticketing, suspension and expulsion inappropriately punish and alienate youth, especially those with untreated mental illness, and increase their chances of dropping out or becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.
Instead, what many of these young people need is services, such as assessment, diagnosis and treatment, at home, in school or in the community. Studies show this approach leads to better outcomes for the child, the family and the community. It's also less expensive than putting youth in the juvenile justice system.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
'Let's keep our mentally ill youth out of detention'
The Houston Chronicle published a notable column today titled "Let's keep our mentally ill youth out of detention," by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Harriet O'Neill, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County Juvenile Probation Department Executive Director Tom Brooks and Dr. Lynda Frost with the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. Among their more salient observations: