Mental health a 'growing issue' in DuPage juvenile system

When a dormant coalition to examine the juvenile justice system in DuPage County began meeting again this spring, Shannon Hartnett pulled some statistics on the roughly 350 to 400 youths who were on probation.

What caught her attention was the mental health problems these young people experience.

Roughly 65 percent of juveniles on probation in March in DuPage had been flagged as having a mental health problem such as depression, bipolar disorder or another mood disorder, said Hartnett, coordinator of the juvenile justice council and program manager of juvenile probation services.

"Every day up in court, you see kids coming in with what we think are undiagnosed, unaddressed mental health issues," Hartnett said. "There's just a general lack of awareness about the way mental health impacts behavior."

The realization has made mental health one area of focus for the juvenile justice council as it prepares to conduct a community needs assessment. The assessment will examine gaps in the system and ways to help young people stay out of trouble.

"We've talked about better access to mental health services for youth, which does seem to be a growing issue," said DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, who is chairman of the juvenile justice council. "There are more kids out there who are in need of mental health services and there's limited resources."

The county's shifting demographics toward a population more diverse in income and educational background could mean more kids who are at risk of developing a mental illness live in DuPage now than before, said Chris Ellerman, CEO of Outreach Community Ministries and a member of the juvenile justice council.

He said having a mental illness doesn't cause a child to break the law and wind up in juvenile court, but it can put another stressor on family life. Instability in family situations, in turn, makes youths more likely to act inappropriately.

That's why juvenile justice council members - who include judges, social service providers, police, health officials, educators, probation officers and public defenders - say mental health is one important area to examine when looking to improve the broader system.

Berlin said the council had been inactive since 2010 or 2011, but it began meeting anew this spring using $130,000 in federal money received the past two years through the state department of human services.

"There is an increased commitment from the state to build the capacity of these councils throughout Illinois so they can really drive juvenile justice reform," Hartnett said.

The juvenile justice council doesn't have any concrete ideas to improve mental health services for youth just yet, but members say the group's collaborative approach creates a good framework to start forming plans.

"There are times where any entity that's at the table, we point fingers," said Darlene Ruscitti, superintendent of the DuPage Regional Office of Education. "This is a way we're sitting down together and saying, 'This is our issue.'"

The council plans to work this fall with researchers from the criminal justice department at Aurora University to study the strengths and gaps in the juvenile justice system before developing a strategic improvement plan, Hartnett said.

Mental health ideas within the eventual plan could focus on education about disorders and encouraging parents to seek treatment if their children are displaying symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental instability.

"Our council has expressed interest in doing more of the primary prevention, the community-based efforts to educate and create awareness around certain things to prevent kids from actually acquiring a full-blown mental illness or getting expelled from school and going down the wrong path," Hartnett said.

The goal would be to begin treatment for kids who have a mental condition before the disorder contributes to destructive behaviors such as damaging property, stealing things, getting into fights or self-medicating with illegal drugs.

"We know that the juvenile justice system is not the place to provide mental health services - we just don't have those resources," Hartnett said. "We're looking for opportunities in the community to serve those needs."

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  DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin says mental health services should be one area of focus as the county's juvenile justice council begins studying ways to improve the justice system for youths. Daniel White/

Mental health: A growing concern

In an occasional series, the Daily Herald explores how the suburbs respond to conditions of the mind. Today, we examine why a group that's studying juvenile justice improvements in DuPage County is focusing on mental health.

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