Mindful of the Consequences: D.C. Youth Need Treatment, Not Punishment, for Mental Health Problems
DC should prioritize children’s mental health as a proactive measure to
stem contact with the justice system, improve long term outcomes for youth
WASHINGTON, D.C. – According to a new report by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), too many youth in Washington, DC go undiagnosed and undertreated for mental illnesses and trauma that contribute to delinquency, poor school performance and later encounters with the justice system. As of 2009, only one private pediatric psychiatrist was located east of the Anacostia River, an area with many of the challenges known to affect mental health. Six providers serving clients on Medicaid closed programs or closed their business between 2010 and 2012, while many others were forced to lay off up to 75% of their mental health staff. In roughly the same period, from 2009 to 2012, the District ranked among the top 10 states with largest percentage cuts to their general funds for mental health.
The brief released by JPI today, Mindful of the Consequences: How improving the mental health of D.C. youth benefits the District, explains how delivering quality mental health services to youth is vital for ensuring they are able to begin a lifetime of productivity during critical years of learning and to establish their place in society.
“Optimal mental health means that we are able to process, in a healthy way, the challenges and stress that we encounter in everyday life,” said Dr. Melissa Neal, JPI senior researcher and author of the report. “When a youth is responding to life events in a destructive way, our first response needs to involve a compassionate approach to better understand what risk factors the youth has faced and what the potential mental health outcomes may be.”
Mindful of the Consequences points out that youth in Washington, DC’s low-income areas — wards 7 and 8 – are experiencing high child poverty rates (40% and 48% respectively) and high unemployment rates (16% and 24% respectively), both of which are known risk factors of mental health problems.
“We can’t have a public health response to youth violence unless the health system steps up to meet the mental health needs of DC children,” said Shannon Hall, Executive Director of the D.C. Behavioral Health Association. In addition, many of these youth are exposed to traumatic experiences ranging from abuse or neglect, to exposure to community violence, to loss of a caregiver, which can impact how a child responds to stress, resulting in behaviors that lead to encounters with the justice system. In 2011, over 40% of juvenile arrests occurred in wards 7 and 8. “Children whose delinquent behavior is related to mental health and trauma need to receive personalized attention, therapy and support, not a lock-up,” added JPI Executive Director Tracy Velázquez. “A punitive, ‘tough on crime’ approach is counterproductive, as it doesn’t address underlying health issues. If we ensure youth get the mental health services they need, improved public safety will follow.”
The report brief includes a list of nine recommendations for improving the District’s approach to mental health for children and youth including:
Include mental health in all District agencies’ policies.
District policies must consider that the wellness of a youth’s mental and emotional state is a key component in public safety. A “mental health-in-all-policies” approach is important as there are implications on the budgets and services of many D.C. public agencies and departments.
Prioritize spending for mental health services in the city budget.
During recent years, the Department of Mental Health endured serious budget cuts. Mental health prevention and treatment services should be a priority to city officials as a decline in mental health can lead to many undesired outcomes both for the youth and for the District as a whole.
Expand culturally appropriate services and ensure provider locations within the communities being served.
Many service providers are located outside the communities that most need services. However, the effects of culture on a child are pervasive and impact our youths’ values, aspirations, and expectations. In order to provide effective services and overcome persistent stigma barriers, providers with a cultural understanding must be placed in areas they are serving.
All professionals working with, or determining policies and procedures for, District youth with potential mental health needs should be trained in basic mental health science and terminology.
Each District agency interfacing with D.C.’s youth – particularly law enforcement, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Court Social Services, Education, among others – should train staff in basic mental health science and terminology so that they can effectively communicate with and foster healing in youth with mental disorders.
To read Mindful of the Consequences: How improving the mental health of D.C. youth benefits the District, CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Adwoa Masozi at (202) 558-7974 x306 or [email protected].
The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promote policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities. For more JPI reports on the criminal justice system, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org.