Youth Behind Bars Often Face Mental Health Concerns

A young man's handcuffed wristsNearly 100,000 children in the United States are incarcerated, with nearly 3,000 of them facing life in prison. On any given day, about 10,000 youth are incarcerated in adult jails. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, a high number of incarcerated children have serious mental health issues. This suggests that many American youth may not have received adequate mental health treatment prior to being incarcerated.

Children, Jail, and Mental Health Issues

To explore the correlation between mental issues and incarceration, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers analyzed the hospitalizations of nearly two million California teenagers. Among incarcerated teens, psychiatric hospitalizations accounted for 63% of hospital stays, compared to just 19% among teens not in jail. Girls saw even higher rates of psychiatric hospitalizations, with psychiatric hospitalizations accounting for 74% of all hospitalizations among teen girls.

Incarcerated teens also spent longer in psychiatric hospitals, which implies that the mental health issues they face may be of greater severity. Among both incarcerated teens and those not in jail, however, though, the most common mental health issues were the same: substance abuse, depression, and conduct issues.

Many incarcerated teens, the research team reports, experience mental health issues because of traumatic or abusive events in childhood, such as sexual abuse or exposure to domestic violence.

Jail Can Worsen Mental Health Problems

Though jails and prisons are increasingly becoming home to a greater number of children with mental health issues, these facilities are far from ideal treatment. Correctional facilities are often abusive environments. A 2012 investigation, for instance, uncovered rampant unprovoked violence by guards against teen inmates, and a lawsuit accused seven guards at the prison of raping inmates. Children who serve their sentences in adult facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those in juvenile facilities, and they also have a greater risk of suicide.

Threats of violence, lack of access to loved ones and support systems, rape and sexual assault, and isolation can all compound mental health issues among incarcerated children—most of whom are eventually released. According to the National Center for Youth in Poverty, 95% of children and teens who are arrested serve time for nonviolent offenses. When they are released, they may experience more difficulty readjusting to society than those without mental health issues.

Mental health care services in jails and prisons range from inadequate to nonexistent. Families may experience significant difficulty finding adequate access to mental health care for their children, and in many cases they may be unable to do so. Comprehensive treatment that includes therapy, lifestyle changes, and family support is largely absent from jails and prisons.

Many professionals in the field of adolescent mental health argue that early treatment of mental health concerns may help prevent some youth from committing crimes in the first place and that comprehensive mental health care for children who are incarcerated is likely to reduce recidivism rates.


  1. Children in adult jails. (2015, March 28). Retrieved from
  2. Children in prison. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. Dienst, J. (2015, May 20). 7 Rikers guards raped inmates, lawsuit alleges. Retrieved from
  4. Gottesman, D., & Schwartz, S. W. (2011, July). Juvenile justice in the U.S. Retrieved from
  5. Preidt, R. (2015, July 21). Mental illness afflicts many juveniles in jail. Retrieved from

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  • seth

    July 21st, 2015 at 5:13 PM

    There HAS to be a better solution than what we currently have. Incarcerating so many young people is obviously not working to curb their crime rates, and it is not helping with the fact that so many of them need mental health care that they are definitely not receiving via the current criminal justice system.

  • Simeon

    July 22nd, 2015 at 3:21 PM

    I would pretty much conclude that any problem that you have before going into jail is only going to be made worse by the prison experience. I know that there are some really good facilities out there but most of them are ill equipped to handle patients with mental health issues, and especially when the mentally ill patient is a juvenile. Their needs are so unique that there needs to be something that is specialized and specifically designed to address those needs.

  • Terra

    July 26th, 2015 at 9:41 AM

    In these cases then what makes a lot of sense to me is that you would then hire more mental health professionals to fulfill roles in jails that service our youth versus corrections officers who are going to look at this job form a totally different angle than what is probably needed. For these kids you are going to need kindness and compassion and those who can educate and who will be willing to educate these kids instead of only worrying about eeping them in line and under control.

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