Should children with mental health issues be incarcerated, or should they be given proper access to mental health treatment?

In Kentucky specifically, 7 out of 10 youth involved with the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition. The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) recently released a new graphic (below) covering the mental health to incarceration pipeline so let’s take a look at how mental health and incarceration go hand in hand.

Currently 1 in every 5 children in the U.S. between the ages of 3 to 17 have a mental health diagnosis and of those, 70 to 80 percent of youth who need mental health services don’t receive them. This can be due to numerous things including a shortage of providers, lack of affordable care, lack of community-based services, and negative stigmas surrounding mental health. Additionally, there are racial barriers to access that prevent youth of color from accessing the care that they need, including lack of access to quality care, provider discrimination, social stigmas about mental health, distrust in the health care system, and a lack of cultural understanding by health care providers.

Children having access to proper mental health care is essential to their overall success and well-being. Too often we criminalize youth due to their unmet mental health needs. The lack of access to services, school police officers without appropriate training, and harsh zero tolerance policies lead to this criminalization of mental health among youth. 

So why are we criminalizing unmet mental health needs and continuing to promote unhealthy stigmas rather than implementing methods to ensure children are getting the adequate services that they need? And what are some actions that we can take to solve this issue?

NJJN recommends the following solutions:

  1. Address root causes such as housing insecurity, food insecurity, trauma, stigmas surrounding mental health, and the need for early detection.
  2. Stop criminalizing youth by removing police from schools, ending zero tolerance policies, and not criminalizing disorderly conduct, willful defiance, and vulgarity, as well as raising the minimum age for youth prosecution. 
  3. Fund care that is culturally and linguistically responsive, community-based, trauma-informed, and voluntary. 
  4. Divert children from the legal system by promptly screening and assessing youth for mental health challenges, and divert kids to appropriate community-based services. 

We want Kentucky’s kids to have the best and brightest futures possible. Each child deserves to thrive in the environment that they exist in. After all, these are the future leaders of our country! Brighter futures for Kentucky’s kids require action.

Check out NJJN’s policy platform and full list of recommendations here to ensure youth with mental health challenges are protected and supported with healing and trauma-informed care. You can also contact your elected leaders to let them know why it is essential to support our youth in Kentucky with mental health challenges and work to end the mental health-to-incarceration pipeline.