Beyond Mental Health and Trauma: Emphasizing Youth Development in Juvenile Justice

Youth-serving systems and professionals increasingly recognize that the effects of mental health conditions, substance use, and trauma on youth are profound. Youth behavior can be impacted in ways that, coupled with siloed and fragmented service systems overwhelmed by needs, results in a higher likelihood of involvement with the juvenile justice system. More than 90 percent of youth in contact with the juvenile justice system experienced at least one traumatic event, and over half (57 percent) experienced complex trauma of 6 or more traumatic episodes (Abram et al., 2004). Further, it is estimated that 65–70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one diagnosable mental health condition (Shufelt & Cocozza, 2006). Rightly, the focus for many working with youth has been on better meeting these behavioral health needs within the juvenile justice system, as well as at school and in the community to avoid entry into the juvenile justice system.

However, the focus of youth-serving systems on mental health and trauma risks deemphasizing youth development more broadly. Positive Youth Development (PYD) is a strengths-based framework that emphasizes building on the abilities, skills, and interests that a young person has, and supporting youth in discovering and cultivating their identity.

To achieve these goals, the PYD framework focuses on developing six key areas:

  1. Attachment to caring adults.
  2. Connections to the school, youth organizations, and community.
  3. Social and emotional competencies.
  4. Prosocial peer relationships.
  5. Social capital networks that can deliver support and resources.
  6. Coherence across the organizations and environments in which youth grow.

Many current paradigms guiding youth-focused work are “adultist” and over-emphasize youth deficits. Taken to the extreme, this can lead to viewing youth only as their risks and failures and not through a strengths-based or person-centered approach. This perspective then drives disempowering language, such as “juvenile delinquent,” “youth offenders,” “substance-addicted youth,” “mentally ill youth.” PYD, on the other hand, is unique because it is about working with all youth to support their healthy development rather than exclusively targeting some youth who are considered “at-risk.” This approach recognizes shared needs experienced by young people within a psychosocial developmental framework.

Nonetheless, it is clear that not all youth are equally supported in their development. Some youth experience systemic disadvantage and may lack self-discovery opportunities. If these opportunities are not happening within their home or community, and also not happening within institutions intended to serve them, youth are ill-prepared to enter adulthood with purpose, direction, and resiliency. PYD’s strength-based approach and its six areas of focus can be addressed across youth-serving settings.

When thinking about youth, “risk” is often associated with something to be avoided. As parents, mentors, or professionals working with youth, we often view our charge as steering youth away from risks (e.g., substance misuse, risky sexual behavior, law-breaking, violence or harm, etc.). PYD invites the opportunity to shift our perception of risk. Instead of blanketly avoiding risk, PYD supports youth through a process of healthy development, viewing risk as an opportunity. Adolescence is a special developmental period in which youth have evolved to be risk-takers. In fact, risk-taking is developmentally necessary as it provides the opportunity for self-efficacy and empowerment. Instead of avoiding all risks, PYD supports the process of building capacities and developing both internal and external resources so that youth can take age-appropriate risks that further their healthy development.

There are many ways in which adults and youth-serving professionals, especially in the juvenile justice system, tend to pathologize and undermine the power of young people. Youth involved in these systems are viewed even more negatively than their peers who are not involved with the system. Consequently, the reaction on the part of professionals and systems is to focus more on what has gone wrong and “treating it” in order to ensure it does not happen again. Such is the approach, even when focusing on the harm that has been caused to youth or the chemical and biological challenges they may face due to mental health conditions. Consequently, it becomes easy to overlook the fact that “at-risk” young people are also on the same developmental journey as all young people.

As the movement continues for a juvenile justice system that is mental health and trauma informed and strives to meet the needs of youth early to avoid system involvement, emphasis on holistic development should not be lost. Inattention to development can manifest into issues that are labeled as a mental health condition. Additionally, youth with mental health conditions remain deserving of opportunities that benefit all young people. PYD provides a framework that encompasses adequate services to address mental health and trauma, while balancing the need for social, emotional, and cognitive development.

The crowding out of negative experiences with positive ones in some ways might be the most effective to change the life of a young person in the juvenile justice system—especially as so many young people in that system are there because we have failed to provide opportunity structures elsewhere. Embracing PYD across youth-serving systems may have the impact of preventing young people from ever entering the juvenile justice system.

More: Listen to a podcast about PYD and the School Responder Model: Part I and Part II