Juvenile Delinquency and Mental Illness

Many times, juvenile delinquency is dismissed as just troubled teen behavior until it increases to more serious crimes. For most of these juveniles, however, there are many factors that lead to delinquent or criminal behavior. In fact, almost 70% of juveniles that commit criminal behavior have at least one diagnosable mental illness (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017). Many of these disorders include anxiety or depressive disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, conduct disorders, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Within the population of juveniles that have one of these or other diagnosable mental health disorders, more than 60% have been shown to also have substance use disorders at their young age (Rousseau, 2023). This means that there is not only a need for mental health services within juvenile justice populations, but also a need for addiction screening and treatment services. Currently, our criminal justice system does not have enough evidence-based and trauma-informed resources for adult or juvenile services within the general or carceral populations. There needs to be a higher focus on these services for both adult and juvenile populations, but especially within juvenile settings at first signs of antisocial or delinquent behavior to help prevent future criminal or violent behaviors. This can be accomplished through further application of trauma-informed and evidence-based practices in schools and in juvenile diversion programs.

One such strategy deploys day treatment programs rather than incarceration. This allows the juvenile to be treated for mental health disorders, substance addictions, and remain in their familiar home environments rather than have to experience incarceration at an early age or leave their support systems, and are only incarcerated if they fail to meet the requirements for attending and participating in the community program (Bartol & Bartol, 2021, p. ). Another important factor in both juvenile delinquency and mental health disorders is the family system and environment. For juvenile offenders that have serious crimes or behaviors, there are certain therapy approaches that are used to be able to address these concerns. One is Multisystemic Therapy (MST) that focuses on the whole picture of factors, including the family unit, peer groups, neighborhood, and school performance (Bartol & Bartol, 2021, p. ). Another similar therapy method is Functional Family Therapy (FFT) while focuses specifically on the family unit and setting to identify the strengths and resilience of the family members, especially the juvenile (Bartol & Bartol, 2021, p. ).

There are many risk factors that can be present in a child’s life that can lead to either mental illness, antisocial or criminal behaviors, or both. Patterson’s Coercion Developmental Theory discusses some of these particular psychosocial factors that can lead to early delinquent behaviors that are typically followed by more serious criminal acts in juveniles. These include poor parental monitoring, inconsistent parental discipline, abusive household, and disruptive family transitions, such as multiple moves to new places or divorce (Bartol & Bartol, 2021, p. 186). Since these risk factors, along with other factors in the individual’s neighborhood and school settings, provide a high correlation to juvenile offenders and also mental health disorders, it is important that schools and family units are able to provide correct resources and programs for juveniles to prevent possible criminal behavior. Juvenile programs to prevent delinquency and criminal behavior are characterized by several factors that are based in research for a successful outcome. The programs have to begin early, with behavioral screening and treatment for aggressive, disruptive, or noncompliant behaviors as early as age 4 or 5 for children who display antisocial tendencies at an early age. They also have to take into consideration differences in gender between juvenile offenders, and implement gender-specific programming. These preventative programs must focus on the family unit and parental support, abuse, monitoring, and other factors within the household first, then on the behavior with peers, teachers, authority, and friends (Rousseau, 2023). These preventative programs for signs of juvenile antisocial behavior, if implemented correctly, can screen for mental health issues and signs of potential substance reliance before it turns into criminal acts or substance abuse.

Once a juvenile offender is involved in the criminal justice system, the focus needs to be on rehabilitation and treatment, not punishment. The first step is consistency in screening and treatment referrals. Case studies have shown that different jurisdictions have different procedures for when youths are evaluated for mental illnesses and when they are referred for treatment, with some starting at intake by police, some at holding awaiting court, and some after court once appointed by the judge (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017). There are also then factors of if treatment is offered and how effective the treatment is based on where the individual is placed, whether it is a juvenile correctional facility, a residential setting, detention center, community program, or outpatient program. With differences in the availability of treatments and access based on not only the jurisdiction, but also the type of facility that individual is held in, research has shown that those inconsistencies can easily lead to higher likelihoods of mental illness symptoms while in custody as well as higher recidivism rates once released if not properly treated while incarcerated, due to the increased risk factors for both mental health disorder symptoms and overall behavioral patterns in potentially overcrowded and mentally challenging environments of correctional facilities for juveniles (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017).  This is why juvenile mental health issues, along with trauma-informed screening and treatment programs for juvenile antisocial behavior, are incredibly important to implement with more accessibility and prevalence in order to prevent delinquent or criminal actions through assessment and treatment of mental health issues along with family and environmental risk factors in a juveniles’ life.


Bartol, A. & Bartol, C. (2021) Criminal Behavior: A Psychological Approach. (12th Edition). Pearson.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (2017).

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One comment

  1. I wrote my blog post about mental health servies in correctional facilities which is similar to your topic. I also agree when you mentioned the need for consistency in screening and treatment referrals. In order for proper treatment and recidivism rates to increase, we need more mental health clinicians and better trauma-informed policies.

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