“He wanted to ride his bike into traffic.”  “He returned home with cuts on his neck.”  “He’s talking suicide…Please take action.”  “He turned a knife on himself when he was six.”  These words reflect the experiences of four young men who have never met, are from different towns, and have their own unique life stories.  But these teens have quite a bit in common, too, perhaps most prominently: They all are currently or have been recently incarcerated in one of California’s juvenile halls or state youth prisons.  In my former position as a juvenile sentencing advocate, I interviewed each of these young men and their families and reviewed reams of documents to gain a greater understanding of what my clients had been through that could have contributed to them being locked up.

While not all of my former clients expressed thoughts of suicide, a majority of them had mental health challenges long before they ever put on an orange jumpsuit. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance addictions were prevalent among my clients. Many of these young people were also current or former foster youth, have suffered abuse and neglect throughout their lives, and have been victims of violent crimes. Indeed, long-standing research finds strong connections between suffering violence and neglect during childhood, experiencing mental illness, and ultimately ending up in the foster and/or juvenile delinquency systems in the U.S.  Moreover, studies indicate that children of color are over-represented in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and that they experience worse overall outcomes than their white counterparts.

While the prevalence of trauma-exposure and related mental health conditions among system-involved youth is likely not surprising to those in the child advocacy community, such young people and their life circumstances are often invisible to the general public.  What I found to be especially distressful in working with at-risk youth was the pattern of separation and isolation that I saw emerge with each new case.

Unfortunately, the entities tasked with supporting the wellbeing of children often ignored the mental health needs of my clients and penalized them instead—pushing them further and further out of their communities, away from their loved ones and systems of support.  These young men and women ultimately ended up in faraway group homes or in cinder block cells with nothing more than a steel toilet, allowing them to become out of sight, out of mind.  It is often during such moments of isolation, helplessness, and estrangement from human connection that young men and women all over the country contemplate taking their own lives.

It is my hope, especially during this new year and the recent holidays, that more of us will resolve to learn and think about the countless young people locked behind razor wire or in their 20th foster home in two years; youth who can’t go home, are struggling with mental illness, and may even be thinking about ending their own lives.

The recognition that unmet or inappropriately addressed mental health needs were often the main culprit leading my young clients into the abyss of the juvenile justice system, is what inspired me to focus on improving mental health outcomes for children and youth.  I will always remember the words I heard from teens in jail, and it is with their experiences in my mind and heart that I am thrilled to join the Young Minds Advocacy team and our allies to raise awareness of the importance of child and youth mental health.  I hope you’ll join us!