It’s Time to Prioritize Suicide Prevention in the Juvenile Justice System

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Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren As the presiding judge of Broward County, Florida’s Misdemeanor Mental Health Court, I believe it is important to promote access to community care and recovery. Therefore, mental health literacy is a key facet of court process.

In this regard, I provide community mental health resource books and brochures from the Broward Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and its Family-to-Family educational program. Moreover, in a trauma-informed court that serves men and women who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), court dialogues about the findings of the ACE Study are educational and empowering. These discussions give voice to court participants and create a classroomlike atmosphere to describe the 10 childhood experiences identified as risk factors for chronic medical disease in adulthood and collateral social consequences, such as substance use, addiction and incarceration.

In terms of the integration of the science of behavioral health into court process, it was not until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published the data about the alarming surge of the suicide rate (April 2016) that I realized the need to prioritize suicide prevention in the mental health court: Suicide surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years.


In November 2016, the CDC followed up on this report, finding that “Young adolescents are as likely to die from suicide as from traffic accidents.”

Based on the seriousness of the CDC’s findings, I undertook a series of actions to raise the bar in terms of suicide prevention and education in the mental health court. To establish a sense of urgency, I identify suicide prevention as a core fidelity of the mental health court and have implemented the following steps:

  1. I educate myself and my clinical team on the facts surrounding suicide. This includes prevalence of suicide across the lifespan, risk factors, special populations and strategies for suicide prevention. For those in the juvenile sphere, I believe it is important to review the statistics surrounding teen suicide and the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences of justice-involved youth, those in foster care and special populations.
  2. I further recommend conducting a literature review surrounding suicide and risk of detained youth and recent data relating to gender and racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. This will aid legal actors and juvenile justice stakeholders in better understanding the risks of detention, and the need for early intervention and solution-oriented alternatives to juvenile justice involvement. This includes civil citation programs, restorative justice strategies and juvenile behavioral health courts.
  3. I provide suicide prevention resources (from the bench), such as First Call For Help, community crisis walk-in centers, mobile crisis teams and The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  4. During court proceedings and in community mental health forums, I advocate for the urgent need for local policymakers to prioritize suicide prevention and build alliances across systems, including the public and private sectors, to engage in suicide prevention.
  5. I have declared Broward’s Misdemeanor Mental Health Court a “Zero Suicide Initiative,” which essentially communicates the court’s commitment to the idea that suicide deaths are preventable. It’s an initiative that is embraced by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which I am a member of. I also make available materials from the Zero Suicide Academy toolkit, trainings, press releases and strategies for building partnerships for suicide prevention.

Many of these steps may appear meager and simple. However, as a member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and as a judge advancing mental health promotion and healthy and safe communities, I have learned the importance of breaking the silence around the subject of suicide. It is time to raise the bar on suicide prevention in the juvenile justice system.

As the pioneer of the first mental health court in the U.S., I am aware of the accelerated growth of collaborative and problem-solving justice strategies. I believe these interdisciplinary and humanizing law reform efforts can be activated to turn the corner on suicide prevention.

Judges have become important behavioral health champions, and transformative leaders in matters of therapeutic justice. Yet, there is more to do to develop community partnership and alliances to advance Zero Suicide Initiatives on local and state levels. Join me, in resolving to raise the bar for suicide prevention across the juvenile justice continuum – and help save lives, to promote healthy living for children and families.

Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren is a county court judge, 17th Judicial Circuit of Florida, and pioneer of the first mental health court in 1997. Broward’s Court served as a model for federal legislation to expand mental health courts in 2000. Judge Lerner-Wren speaks nationally and internationally on therapeutic jurisprudence, the decriminalization of people with mental illness and human rights.

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