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Stanford study of mental illness in incarcerated teens raises policy questions

depressionMental illness is an even bigger problem for jailed teenagers than experts previously realized.

That's the take-away message from a Stanford study, publishing today in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which compared 15 years' worth of hospital stays for adolescents in California's juvenile justice system with hospitalizations of other California kids and teens. Experts already knew that juvenile inmates are more likely than other young people to have mental health problems, but the new study gives fresh perspective on the scope of the issue.

The research team, led by Arash Anoshiravani, MD, an adolescent medicine specialist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, looked at 15 years of hospital-stay data for California's 11- to 18-year-olds. From a total of almost 2 million hospitalizations, about 11,000 were for incarcerated youth.

Of these 11,000 hospital stays, 63 percent were due to mental-health diagnoses. In contrast, just under 20 percent of the hospital stays by adolescents from the general population were prompted by mental illness. Hospital stays were also longer for the incarcerated teens, suggesting more severe illness.

However, the kinds of diagnoses were pretty similar between the two groups, with depression and substance abuse the most common. From our press release about the new study:

The types of diagnoses suggest that many incarcerated teens’ mental health problems developed in response to stressful and traumatic childhood experiences, such as being abused or witnessing violence, Anoshiravani said.

“They’re regular kids who have had really, really horrible childhoods,” he said, adding that he hopes the new data will motivate social change around the problem.

“We are arresting kids who have mental health problems probably related to their experiences as children,” he said. “Is that the way we should be dealing with this, or should we be getting them into treatment earlier, before they start getting caught up in the justice system?”

Previously: Online health records could help high-risk teens, study finds, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital partners with high schools on student mental health programs and Increasing awareness and advocacy of emotional disorders with mental health first-aid programs
Photo by ryan melaugh

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