The value of alternative therapies in mental health treatment for incarcerated youths.

Author:Williams, Lynn
Position:Juvenile Justice News

A growing concern of the criminal justice system is how to effectively treat the high percentage of incarcerated youths who suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues. At present, most juvenile correctional facilities are using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in their treatment. This article discusses an innovative program instituted at Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility (CHJCF) called the Power Within Me program, which combines mindfulness yoga and meditation techniques as a complementary therapy to CBT in the treatment of juvenile offenders. This article will draw upon psychological literature, a preliminary study of the program's effectiveness, testimony of the participants and personal observation to provide evidence that alternative treatments like those used in the Power Within Me are effective counterparts to more traditional therapies and highly useful as treatment interventions.

Background: Juvenile Offenders and Mental Health

Close to 70 percent of youths in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental health disorder, and approximately 30 percent suffer from a mental illness so severe it impairs their ability to function as a responsible adult. (1) Overwhelming research shows that juvenile offenders suffer significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than the general population of young people. (2) The rate at which mental disorders affect incarcerated youths is about 70 percent, which far surpasses the normal rate of mental disorders among the general population of teens (approximately 20 percent). (3) Research also indicates that 47 percent of detained boys suffer from moderate to severe levels of depressive symptoms, while the general prevalence of major depression in U.S. teens is estimated to be between 5 percent and 8 percent. (4) The suicide rate of incarcerated youths is found to be two to three times higher than youths in the general population. (5) It has also been discovered that 21.3 percent of boys met criteria for an anxiety disorder, while only 13 percent met the same criteria among the general population of teens. (6) As many as 21 percent of incarcerated male youths have inattention and hyperactivity symptoms associated with ADHD, while normative U.S. samples are estimated to be only 4.1 percent. (7) Some researchers have found that ADHD in juveniles is related to the development of adult antisocial personality disorders. (8)

The majority of juvenile offenders are also victims of early childhood trauma and maltreatment, with extensive abuse and neglect histories. (9) In a large U.S. study of incarcerated youths, virtually all of those studied (90 percent) reported exposure to some type of trauma, and 32.3 percent of boys met criteria for PTSD. (10) These traumatic experiences can cause detrimental effects on brain development, particularly on the cognitive control section, which is responsible for decisionmaking and regulating emotions. (11) These cognitive processing issues include failure to properly hold attention, work memory and regulate emotion. Researchers have linked these issues to behavioral disorders and have associated them with the development and persistence of antisocial behavior. (12,13)

In addition, substance abuse has been strongly linked with general offending and is often comorbid with other psychiatric disorders. (14) One study found that 77 percent of juvenile offenders used substances within the last six months. (15) The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University implicated drug and alcohol use in 64 percent of violent offenses and 72 percent of property offenses among juveniles. (16)

Mental Health Treatment in Juvenile Prisons

These statistics overwhelmingly support the need for extensive and effective mental health treatment in juvenile...

To continue reading