Young offenders need mental care

YOUNG offenders are three times more likely to have a mental health problem than other young people, according to a new report from the Mental Health Foundation.

By Tracey Sparling

YOUNG offenders are three times more likely to have a mental health problem than other young people, according to a new report from the Mental Health Foundation.

The organisation today claimed these problems are often neglected - even at a time when youth offending is high on the political agenda – and says meeting these young people's mental health needs is critical, if youth offending is to be properly addressed.

In Suffolk, youth offending is on the increase, with 1,639 youths through the courts last year, compared to 1,442 the year before.

Chief prosecutor for Suffolk Chris Yule said: "Every magistrates court has a community psychiatric nurse to provide magistrates with an expert opinion on both adult and youth defendants, if they have concerns. The Youth Offending Service would then address any issues identified in the report.

"I would not be surprised to find that young offenders suffered from the disorders mentioned by the Mental Health Foundation and I am aware that substance abuse is common. That's often the case along the route to criminal activity."

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The Mental Health of Young Offenders report, launched today by the Mental Health Foundation, is the first of four reports examining the mental health needs of four key groups of young people who are at risk of developing mental health difficulties.

The other groups are looked-after children, homeless young people and children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. A final report covering all four groups, in the context of current policy and practice developments, will be published in the spring of 2003.

The most common mental health problems for young offenders are emotional disorders, conduct disorders and attention disorders.

Substance abuse, which can cause or add to mental health problems, is common, with some studies finding that over 50 per cent of young offenders are affected.

Ruth Lesirge, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: "While young offenders seem to be a focus for retribution in society, many have enduring mental health needs which are simply not being met.

"If this situation is not addressed, not only will these young people continue to be let down by services, they are also more likely to continue offending. It is very difficult for someone to change their behaviour while they have substantial mental health problems."

Young offenders have high rates of mental health problems for reasons including childhood hyperactivity, erratic parenting, over-harsh discipline and growing up in stressful families or neighbourhood.

Involvement with the criminal justice system places young people under stress, and mental health problems are highest for young people in custody – up to 81pc in some studies.

The report adds: "Detection rates for young offenders' mental health problems are extremely poor, especially for internalising disorders such as self-harm and depression. There are no widely-used methods of mental health screening within the English youth justice system. Even where mental health needs are identified, expertise and resources are lacking, especially within custody.

"There are problems with providing services within the youth justice system and with referring young people to existing services such as the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service."

The Mental Health Foundation recommends that:

Detention and sentencing protocol should be reviewed, with less young offenders being detained in prison.

There should be a specialist mental health worker in all youth offending teams.

Police stations should have a checklist of factors that indicate predisposition to mental health problems, so that young people can be quickly referred for assessment.

The NHS, social services and youth offending community services, must develop closer working links, including systems to track offenders' progress.

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