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Locking up Kids with Mental Illness

Locking up Kids with Mental IllnessA few weeks ago, we wrote about the opening of a mental health court in Philadelphia to help deal with a problem that’s overwhelming the U.S. justice system — poor mental health care in prisons, affecting up to 30 percent of those incarcerated.

Some of the problems our prisons face can be traced back to a pretty straightforward issue — our prisons are overcrowded. For instance, the prisons have been so overcrowded in California, the California prison system has been under a federal court’s oversight for years. And that court has become so frustrated by California’s lack of interest in the humane treatment of their prisoners, they recently ordered the number of prisoners cut by 27 percent within two years. The case that resulted in the court order began as the result of class action lawsuits addressing — surprise, surprise! — inadequate medical and mental health care in the prison system.

Which brings us to the sorry state of affairs in the juvenile prison system.

According to a recent New York Times article, about two-thirds of the nation’s approximately 93,000 juvenile inmates have at least one mental illness, citing surveys of youth prisons.

You’d think with such high rates of diagnosable mental health concerns in these children, you’d be offering them the highest mental health care possible, right? I mean, if anyone can be helped by such care early on, it’s likely to be children who are under the state’s care.

Sadly, that’s not the case. Just as with adults, we warehouse the children in facilities that not only do little to provide for their mental health needs, but continue to cut back in tough economic times:

At least 32 states cut their community mental health programs by an average of 5 percent this year and plan to double those budget reductions by 2010, according to a recent survey of state mental health offices.

Juvenile prisons have been the caretaker of last resort for troubled children since the 1980s, but mental health experts say the system is in crisis, facing a soaring number of inmates reliant on multiple — and powerful — psychotropic drugs and a shortage of therapists.

The children and teens in the juvenile justice system are just that — children and teens. According to surveys, more than half have histories of exposure to violence, neglect, abuse and trauma. It is estimated that up to 75 percent of young offenders have a substance abuse disorder. Other research has shown that as many as 20 percent of this group also suffer from a serious mental disorder, like clinical depression or bipolar disorder.

There are no easy answers to these problems, especially in tough economic times. States have no money, so they cut back on these “luxury” items, like adequate medical and mental health care to those under its charge. And few people care about the criminal justice system in the U.S. (since most of us have never been to prison or have any direct experience with it). Yet you can tell a lot about a society by the way they treat not only their indigent, but also their criminals. Even more so when those criminals are our own children and teens.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Read the full article: Mentally Ill Offenders Strain Juvenile System

Locking up Kids with Mental Illness

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Locking up Kids with Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 Aug 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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