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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 are essential.

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 productive careers.

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 six years.

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.


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