Mental Illness and Its Effect on Juvenile Delinquency

Juveniles with mental illness are three times more likely than the average juvenile to come across the justice system. This has led to communities attempting to expand resources on punishing and incarcerating many juveniles who arguably, with proper treatment, could be rehabilitated and become productive members of their community. Much research has shown that this method of incarcerating juveniles who suffer from mental illness is ineffective at conforming them. Furthermore, it may even worsen some individuals’ mental health issues. Fortunately, there has been effort, research, and some progress in addressing this problem. However, researchers are continuously attempting to further deepen their understanding of the question: Does mental illness lead juveniles to engage in delinquency? If so, does the justice system do more harm than good with their attempt of rehabilitating them into society?

To begin, one must start with the basics of mental illness among juveniles. According to the National Center for Mental Health Services, five to nine percent of all juveniles meet the criteria for diagnosis of mental illness. However, only about ten percent of juveniles with mental illness receive treatment (US Department of Health and Human Services). To further understand this, one must first have a complete understanding of what mental illnesses are. Mental illnesses are defined as brain disorders by the National Institute of Mental Health and are distinguished by the amount of impairment it causes. Untreated mental illnesses impair juveniles social, academic, and occupational development. These symptoms can cause unstable behavior and flawed judgment. Thus, this causes juveniles with serious mental illness to be at a higher risk of coming across the juvenile justice system. However, there is, arguably, not a lot of data on the rates of mental illness among juveniles who are incarcerated. Therefore, depending on the methodology used in the research, between seventeen and twenty-seven percent of juveniles in jail have been found to have a mental illness (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse 2004).This means that rates of mental illness of incarcerated juveniles are anywhere between two to five times higher than those of the average juvenile.

Furthermore, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington D.C., the percentage of incarcerated juvenile delinquents with mental illness is larger than the percentage of incarcerated adults with mental illness. However, even with this shocking statistic, unfortunately most juveniles with mental health issues go untreated during the time they are incarcerated. Instead, their symptoms are treated with discipline, which often worsens their condition. As a result, suicide rates of these juveniles are four times more likely than that of the rest of the population (Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 34(1), 24–35.) This is an obvious problem, yet a difficult one to solve. With all of these statistics presented, one can argue that, yes, it seems as though the justice system may do more harm than good to these juveniles that struggle with mental illness. However, to really get to the bottom of this, one must go back to the initial question: Does mental illness lead juveniles to engage in delinquency? If this question can be answered, then it is easier to address how to improve the detention centers to better accommodate and rehabilitate these troubled juveniles.

So, does mental illness lead juveniles to engage in delinquency? Unfortunately, there is no data that directly addresses this, however, there is research that has found that juveniles in detention centers tend to have traumatic pasts (Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 765-771). These traumatic experiences are a wide spectrum of events such as: substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, natural disaster, physical abuse, emotional abuse, living in extreme poverty, living in high-crime communities, etc. All of these events as well as many others refers to the juvenile feeling strain. This directly relates to one of the four major theories of juvenile delinquency – Strain Theory.

According to the book, Juvenile Delinquency Causes and Control, Strain Theory is when juveniles experience strain or stress, which causes them to become upset. One can easily see how a child experiencing the above traumatic events could cause them extreme stress. This in turn can lead them to engage in delinquent behavior, in hopes of somehow relieving the strain they are feeling. A simple example of this is a juvenile being extremely famished, due to his/her family experiencing monetary problems, therefore not being able to purchase adequate food, so the juvenile decides to steal from the local grocery store to relieve the strain. However, just because a juvenile experiences traumatic events and engages in delinquency, this does not mean that they have a mental illness. Nevertheless, the likelihood of them having a mental illness, possibly due to these traumatic experiences, is a high risk factor.

Research has found that there are high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms in teenage delinquent boys, as well as high rates of anxiety and depression teenage girls (Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 765-771). An example of this is a study ran by the Department of Psychology at Miami University, in which a sample of eighty-three detained boys, ages twelve to seventeen, were analyzed. The results showed that ninety-five percent of participants had experienced trauma and twenty percent met the criteria for diagnosed of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, another study done by the psychiatry department of the University of Connecticut Health Center further extends this research of mental illness in juvenile delinquents. The study focused on juveniles between the ages of ten to sixteen years old, who had recently been admitted to juvenile detention centers. The researchers analyzed the likelihood of juveniles having just one traumatic victimization, multiple victimizations, and severe emotional and behavioral problems.

Results found that girls were at a higher risk of multiple victimizations, and that they especially warrant specific clinical and rehabilitative attention in order to address the severe mental health problems they face. Due to these studies, one can see the connection between traumatic experiences leading to a juvenile experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms, which can further lead to mental problems such as PTSD and Anxiety. The question still at hand, though, is how do we connect these juveniles having the mental illness to them engaging in delinquent behavior? Is there a direct cause and effect relationship between mental illness and delinquency?

One can ask themselves: How and why would mental illness lead a juvenile to participate in delinquency? If one breaks it down, it becomes a bit simpler. Take a juvenile who is experiencing extreme levels of anxiety. Naturally, the individual is going to look for ways to somehow diminish the symptoms of anxiety they are feeling. This relates back to Strain Theory. The anxiety that the juvenile is feeling is causing them strain/stress and they are going to try to decrease the level of strain by whatever means necessary.

This might be through engaging in delinquency with peers, which relates to another theory – Social Learning Theory. Social Learning Theory states that juveniles learn to engage in delinquency from others (Juvenile Delinquency Causes and Control). If one looks at a juvenile that is severely depressed, severely anxious, has ADHD, etc., they are more likely to deviate away from societal norms because they are going to correlate their everyday life with how they are feeling. One way they might do this is by hanging around a new group of peers. If the group of peers they decide to hang around engage in delinquent acts, they are more likely to do so as well. Why is that? It can be due to a number of things, but specifically, one is more likely to participate in delinquency when their peers positively reinforce their delinquent behavior. Furthermore, because it has been reinforced previously, the juvenile is more likely to continue participating in delinquency in the future. Therefore, one can see that because the juvenile had a mental disorder (possibly depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc.), they deviated away from their everyday life in an attempt to reduce the \strain of the illness, by which they participated in delinquent acts with peers.

Now that the question of whether or not mental illness can lead juveniles to engage in delinquent behavior has been addressed, next the question of does the justice system do more harm than good with their attempt of rehabilitating them into society can be examined. In recent years of research, it has been better understood that although incarceration is necessary for a low percentage of juveniles, long term incarceration tends to do more harm than good, even leading to more crimes committed in the future (School of Psychology and Counseling, Regent University). Why is this? There are numerous factors, but a major one that can be observed is the major theory – Labeling Theory. Labeling Theory is defined as the focus on the reactions to delinquency (Juvenile Delinquency Causes and Control, 167).

These reactions come in the forms of both formal and informal. Formal reactions come from the justice system, while informal reactions come from the juvenile’s community such as: teachers, peers, parents, etc. These people give the juvenile labels that have a negative connotation to them. For example, a judge or a cop may refer to the juvenile as a “trouble maker”, and a teacher at school may call the juvenile a “bad apple”. The negative labels tend to reiterate to the juvenile that they are indeed these bad things, that they are in fact a bad person. Once the juvenile feels this way about themselves, it becomes increasingly likely for them to continue to engage in delinquency. They get this idea that since everyone believes they are bad anyway, they might as well continue on the path that they are on.

Starting around twenty-five years ago, the juvenile justice system began documenting an increased amount of juveniles delinquents with mental illness (Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Offenders with Mental Disorders ). Juveniles with mental disorders can possibly become involved with delinquency when the symptoms of their mental health issues causes the juvenile to act out in a way that draws the attention of the law and the justice system (Psychiatric Quarterly, 273-291). This is further explained in the book, Juvenile Delinquency Causes and Control. Symptoms of common mental illnesses in juvenile delinquents include, but are not limited to: impulsivity, recklessness, impaired judgement, etc. These are also characteristics that the book refers to as a super trait.

Super Trait consists of several more specified traits such as: impulsivity, risk seeking, hyperactivity, etc. (Juvenile Delinquency Causes and Control, 243). Therefore, one can see how a juvenile with mental illness and a juvenile who engages in delinquency share common character traits. Additionally, the cognitive impairments caused by mental illness put juveniles in danger of hurting themselves and others in reckless behavior and impulsive decision making. Therefore, without access to health care such as diagnosis and treatment, many of these juveniles’ mental illnesses go unrecognized or put on the back burner. As a result, instead of proper medical treatment, these juveniles are even further labeled as “delinquent.”

To continue, in addition to the Labeling Theory playing a part in this, Control Theory is also at work. Control Theory states that people differ in the levels of control that they possess, as well as the restraints they face in order to engage in delinquency (Juvenile Delinquency Causes and Control, 151). Control Theory directly relates to Labeling Theory in this case because according to the above book, when a juvenile experiences negative labels, they are more likely to experience a decrease in control. This is due to members of their community not wanting to engage with them because of the negative labels.

To continue further, this can be related back to Strain Theory, because the juvenile will feel strain when it is harder for them to achieve goals, positive reinforcement, etc., due to the labeling of them by others. One can also notice how this correlates with Social Learning Theory as well because the juvenile is more prone to associate with other delinquents since the rest of their community does not want to associate with them and labels them negatively. Therefore, this is all a chain that connects back to Labeling Theory, in which the juvenile comes to think of themselves as criminal, a bad person, helpless, etc., so they continue the cycle of repeating delinquent offenses. How does this all connect back to incarceration being problematic though? Incarceration comes with the negative connotation and assumption that the juvenile should be punished above all else. Furthermore, it iterates the idea that punishment is more important than rehabilitation.

Although this may seem like an unbreakable cycle, lately, the public opinion concerning the juvenile justice system has shifted from a severe and strict approach, towards a more rehabilitative focus of care (American Journal of Community Psychology, 404-415). Because of this, fortunately, there has been an increase of dependency on the juvenile justice system to offer care for the mental health of juvenile offenders and this has increasingly been developed. Especially in the last ten years, demand on the juvenile justice system to meet the needs of juvenile delinquents with mental illness has increased forcefully. This is not necessarily a new idea though.

According to, The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, the juvenile justice system originally took both a rehabilitative and preventative approach, emphasizing the needs and rights of children over the appeal to punish them. However, over the decades this concept shifted to harsher punishment and now, once again, is taking a shift back to the rehabilitative approach. The problem that is occurring with this though, is that now that this shift has been presented, juvenile justice systems are left unequipped to treat the dire needs of juveniles with mental illnesses. This has been proven by investigations done by the United States Department of Justice, where they noted that the usual offered mental health care for juvenile delinquents is often insufficient or even unavailable all together. Furthermore, The Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice has reported many obstacles in providing adequate mental health care like: deficient resources, poor administrative size, shortage of proper staffing, as well as lack of training for staff.