Mental Health Issues at Root of Most Youth Crime, Conference Told

By Louisa Taylor, Ottawa Citizen March 24, 2011   

Teachers, police and probation officers will be able to serve troubled youth better if they remember the tremendous overlap between mental health problems and the anti-social behaviour they see, a conference on child and youth mental health heard yesterday.

Dr. Alan Leschied, a psychologist and professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario, opened the day-long conference at the
Confederation Education Centre by addressing the dangers of criminalizing youth with mental health disorders. Citing statistics on youth in detention,
Leschied said his research has found that 60 per cent of males and two-thirds of females in youth detention facilities meet the criteria for one or more
diagnosable psychiatric disorders. Half of the kids in detention have a substance abuse problem.

“As a teacher or probation officer, if I don’t know that a kid is experiencing violence at home, and that kid strikes out at school, I will only be addressing
the behavioural issues and not the underlying cause,” said Leschied.

“Most professionals work within a certain system, but we need to make sure we reach recognize how much we have in common.”

Organized by several local agencies working on youth mental health and justice issues, the conference aims to raise awareness of services in the community and improve collaboration between agencies. Among the 350 attendees were teachers, police officers, counsellors, youth workers, judges and probation officers.

Leschied described how many of the risk factors for mental health problems are also the risk factors for youth who get into trouble with the law. Poverty,
poor family life, violence or trauma in the home or school, lack of belonging, lack of academic achievement and, for some children, overexposure to violent or sexual images in pop culture, are all known red flags for both mental illness and anti-social behaviour. The difficulty is recognizing them and making sure the child gets the right help at the right time.

According to Leschied, one in five children experience symptoms of a diagnosable disorder, but just three per cent of those children will get any treatment.

“If we don’t intervene early enough with the appropriate resources, we end up criminalizing mental health issues,” Leschied said.

Leschied also talked about the importance of reducing the stigma surrounding mental health. He praised the family of Ottawa teenager Daron Richardson for speaking publicly about their daughter’s suicide.

“It was a horrible event, but they made it a wonderful example of advocating for mental health services,” said Leschied. “We all need to be advocates, to
say we’re a community that cares, that doesn’t tolerate violence, and that thinks mental health care is important.”

Ontario Justice Dianne Nicholas came to the conference to learn more about the mental health services and strategies available to the teens she sees in
the Youth Mental Health Court, an innovative Ottawa program that diverts some kids facing legal charges into a team-based resolution process. Nicholas, one of the court’s judges, works with lawyers, youth workers and a psychiatrist to find the best resolution to ensure the accused gets treatment.

“I hear gut-wrenching stories in our court, and the kids and parents we see are all looking for help,” says Nicholas. “Most of these kids have concurrent
mental health and substance abuse disorders, and they’re in the youth justice system often never having been diagnosed or properly treated.”

If your child or family is in crisis or just need information about services, call the Child, Youth and Family Crisis Line to speak to a professional: 613-260-2360.
It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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