A great majority of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health disorder. Disruptive disorders are the most common, followed by substance use, anxiety and mood disorders. These data have been challenged by some because disruptive disorders are similar to the characteristics of delinquent youth in general, and the use of alcohol and other drugs by minors is also illegal. However, after excluding disruptive disorders, fully 66% of youth still meet criteria for a mental health disorder. Even if both conduct disorder and substance use disorders are removed, almost half of youth (45.5%) have a mental health disorder.
This high rate of mental disorders in youth in the juvenile justice system results from the failure of our systems to provide appropriate mental health services. Indeed, some of these youth are in the juvenile justice system because their parents have been unable to find needed services and have assumed (incorrectly) that once the police are called, mental health care will be provided.
Several policy approaches could alleviate this situation. If all youth had health care coverage and ready access to appropriate community mental health services, many would never become involved in the juvenile justice system. If judges had additional training as to the effectiveness and availability of local community mental health services, fewer children would be incarcerated. If youth leaving juvenile justice facilities had appropriate release planning and were connected to services and supports they need, fewer would reoffend. If there were systems in place to identify youth at the time of arrest who could be diverted away from the juvenile justice system and furnished appropriate treatment instead, more youth would be able to remain with their families and in the community.