By Joseph J. Cocozza, Ph.D., Director of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice at Policy Research Associates, Inc. and co-lead of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Youth in Contact with the Juvenile Justice System Task Force
The suicide rate among American youth is alarmingly high, and the rate for justice-involved youth is even more concerning. Specifically, data show that:
- youth in juvenile justice residential facilities have nearly three times the rate of suicide compared to their peers in the general population;
- suicide continues to be the leading cause of death for youth in custody; and
- up to one-third of justice-involved youth report having experienced suicidal ideation in the past year.
Despite the gravity of these findings, there exists a significant gap between the seriousness of the problem and the adequacy of response to it. Given this disparity, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention formed the Youth in Contact with the Juvenile Justice System Task Force (Task Force), which I was pleased to have co-led along with Melodee Hanes, the former Acting Administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
As members of our Task Force came together, it became abundantly clear that much needed to be done to address this issue. Many juvenile justice practitioners and providers require a greater awareness of how significant and frequent the problem of suicide is for youth in their care. In an effort to bridge the gap from awareness to action, specific training and prevention protocols need to be implemented. Additionally, we need to learn more through research and evaluation about what works best to prevent suicide among justice-involved youth.
The goal of the Task Force was to focus attention on the unique needs of youth in contact with the juvenile justice system by developing new suicide prevention resources for the field. Objectives were organized around four areas:
- raising public awareness and education regarding suicide and prevention
- reviewing and integrating the best available research into the resources
- providing guidance around suicide prevention programming and training
- encouraging greater collaboration among the mental health and juvenile justice systems
Task Force members’ review of the available information, identification of the gaps in knowledge and practice, and recommendations for action, represent the best researched and documented body of work on their topics. The Task Force produced the following:
- Need to Know: A Fact Sheet Series on Juvenile Suicides provides concise, practical information about youth suicide prevention to three critical groups: 1) judges and juvenile courts, 2) juvenile detention and secure care staff, and 3) juvenile probation staff. Each fact sheet includes data on the prevalence of juvenile suicide, risk and protective factors associated with suicide, and steps that both staff and systems can take to prevent suicide.
- Suicidal Ideation and Behavior among Youth in the Juvenile Justice System: A Review of the Literature summarizes the relevant, peer-reviewed literature on suicide in the juvenile justice system. It explores the prevalence of recent and past suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among justice-involved youth, gender and ethnic differences, and variables associated with suicidal ideation and attempt.
- Screening and Assessment for Suicide Prevention: Tools and Procedures for Risk Identification among Juvenile Justice Youth examines the juvenile justice system’s responsibilities in preventing suicide, the contexts in which screening and assessment instruments are used, and specific instruments that are available. It also provides recommendations for implementing tools for both detecting and intervening with youth at risk for suicide.
- Guide to Developing and Revising Suicide Prevention Protocols for Youth in Contact with the Juvenile Justice System offers a standardized approach for youth suicide prevention among juvenile justice programs and providers. It describes critical components of a sound justice system, as well as strategies for implementing these components across the points of contact with the juvenile justice system.
- Preventing Juvenile Suicide through Improved Collaboration: Strategies for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Agencies recommends priorities and strategies that mental health and juvenile justice agencies at the state and local levels can pursue to inform joint policy and budgeting decisions associated with suicide prevention for youth involved in juvenile justice in an effort to enhance the provision of appropriate services to this vulnerable population.
A complete list of the membership, products, and findings of the Task Force can be found in the Executive Summary.
To help disseminate this important information, a variety of activities are occurring. The Action Alliance released the work of the Task Force on its website, and many Task Force members have disseminated the information via their own organizations’ Listserv, website, and/or newsletter. On April 17, I was joined by Dr. Linda Teplin, a Task Force member and an expert on youth suicide from Northwestern University, in presenting Preventing Suicide among Justice-Involved Youth: Newly Developed Tools, Recommendations, and Research, which was the first of a series of free webinars hosted by the Action Alliance and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Additionally, the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice developed a new web resource, Preventing Suicide Among Justice-Involved Youth, for the Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Collaborative for Change website, which also includes other information and resources about mental health and juvenile justice.
It is my hope that through this work, in addition to our ongoing collective efforts, youth suicide can be prevented. Our duty to protect children, in particular those who are most vulnerable, is an obligation that must be taken seriously. This mission requires an urgency that cannot be overstated and I am privileged to have a role in seeing it succeed.
This blog post also appears on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention website.