OP-ED: Treating the Cause, Not the Symptom, When Juvenile Justice and Mental Health Meet

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Julie Biehl

The connection between the juvenile justice system and mental health is really the connection between prison and poverty.

We know that poverty can lead to untreated mental health issues and those issues can lead to a juvenile conviction in the courts. But it can also happen the other way around: the mental illness labels applied to youth offenders can follow them for the rest of their lives, even after they get out of prison or complete a parole sentence, and can cement the cycle of poverty for the next generation.

A diagnosis of a disorder can prevent juveniles from finding a job, having a family and being successfully integrated back into society years, even decades, after serving their sentences.

Consequently, the courts should evaluate the risks and rewards associated with pathologizing children who find themselves in the system, especially when their behavior is consistent with our scientific understanding (and cultural acceptance) of the neurobiology of brains still in development. Risky behavior, aggression, lack of foresight—these are all symptoms of both mental illness and pubescence, and it is precisely because of the differences in nature between a child and an adult that we have discrete justice systems for each category.

In the meantime, as we put labels on their weaknesses, we are forgetting children’s strengths—namely, resilience. It is because of this resilience and impressible disposition that most children who offend grow up to be rehabilitated and should be given as many opportunities as possible to successfully cease offending.

Unfortunately, politicians in Chicago and around the country have used the economic crisis as a pretext to strip community-based mental health initiatives, social programming, and public schools of their funding. Yet there appears to be enough money to continue incarceration-based approaches for youth that are proven to increase adult criminality, and always enough people from a few select neighborhoods to fill adult prisons.

This is why the economic crisis is a pretext: it allows politicians to spin state budgets and federal finances as “in the red” for desperately needed community services like schools, aftercare programming, and mental health clinics while choosing to spend the scarce tax dollars they do have on prosecuting the very people who denied prevention services.

Policy makers, arguing for public safety, are more comfortable spending money on processing youth in the criminal and juvenile justice systems—labeling, diagnosing and incarcerating them—than they are on rehabilitating them effectively in their own communities.

There is no excuse for this kind of policy-making. It results in over-diagnosis, misdiagnosis and, yes, under-diagnosis and most certainly undertreatment and maltreatment for those who are actually ill.

Moreover, our over-reliance on assessment, diagnosis and incarceration—and failure to appropriately treat mental illness in the community—perpetuates the erosion of the social contract between offending juveniles and the society from which they feel alienated. No one would make the claim that the youths who find themselves in conflict with the law are without real and pressing issues. But there’s a difference between severe and persistent mental illness and the psychological burdens of poverty, racism and trauma that are exacerbated during adolescence.

Lawmakers are preaching policies that lead to the locking up and criminalizing of children in the same breath as they take away the educational and healthcare institutions that pave the way to mental wellness.

In the present political moment, the cycle of poverty, psychological disruption and incarceration is certain to continue. It is imperative in the wake of our national confrontation with gun violence and mental illness that we think critically about the factors in both.

We have the choice between treating a symptom and treating a cause. When we find ourselves living in a society that relies more on incarceration than prevention, how we look to remedy that inequity is a reflection—or an indictment—of our priorities.

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