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Professional News
MH Advocates Hope Outreach Benefits Youth on Probation
Psychiatric News
Volume 38 Number 15 page 10-37

In New Jersey, the underlying mental health problems that have led many youth to the doors of the juvenile justice system have gone unaddressed for too long, say leaders of that state’s Mental Health Association. These problems are finally being addressed through a program of screening and group therapy.

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Discussing how to help New Jersey youth who are on probation and have untreated substance abuse and mental health problems in New Jersey are (from left) Mary Lynne Reynolds, executive director of the MHA in Southwestern New Jersey; Hazel Moran, associate director of juvenile justice at NMHA; and Jennifer Miller, director of training and marketing for the MHA of New Jersey.

Staff at the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) and its New Jersey affiliate appeared at the 2003 NMHA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., in June to discuss the steps they have taken to address the problem of youth who are on probation and have untreated substance abuse and mental health problems.

New Jersey was the focus of the NMHA’s first effort to address the problem in its 1999 report, "The Community Assessment Project: A Look at Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment Needs," according to Hazel Moran, the NMHA’s associate director of juvenile justice.

The report, which summarized the concerns of various stakeholders in the juvenile justice and mental health systems, concluded that there was a lack of coordination among state-run services provided to youth in the juvenile justice system. It pointed out as well that there was no systematic mental health screening of youth who entered the system, despite the fact that, according to Moran, "as many as 80 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder."

After the NMHA issued the report, the MHA of New Jersey launched the Juvenile Justice Probation Project to determine the rate of mental health problems among youth on probation in New Jersey.

With the cooperation of the Probation Services Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, counselors screened 296 juvenile probationers for mental health problems between fall 2001 and summer 2002 as part of the project.

Probationers in three counties—Camden, Bergen, and Mercer—completed the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument (MAYSI) upon entering the juvenile justice system, according to Jennifer Miller, director of training and marketing for the MHA of New Jersey. All screenings were voluntary.

Miller informed attendees that scores falling within the "caution" range on the MAYSI indicate possible clinical significance, and scores within the "warning" range indicate the heightened need for clinical attention.

These were among the findings:

• 1.5 percent of the youth scored within the warning range for suicidal ideation.

• 20 percent fell within the caution range on the drug and alcohol scale.

• 30 percent scored within the caution range and 13 percent within the warning range on the anger and irritability scale.

When project leaders compared scores between boys and girls in the sample, they found that more girls (20 percent) than boys (4 percent) scored in the warning range on the depression and anxiety scale; more girls (17.5 percent) than boys (4.5 percent) experienced four or more traumatic experiences in their lives; and more girls (27.5 percent) than boys (9 percent) scored in the warning range on the suicidal ideation scale.

Once the state MHA more clearly understood the extent of mental health problems in juveniles on probation, staff from the the Southwestern New Jersey MHA in Camden County decided to take action.

"We identified the youth who had problems, but realized that our community mental health services were overloaded," said Mary Lynne Reynolds, M.P.A., who is executive director of the MHA in Southwestern New Jersey. "We wondered what we could offer that would be accessible and would help kids."

In summer 2002, Reynolds and her staff in Camden County began offering group therapy to youth on probation. The groups, which have focused on issues such as anger management, substance abuse, and young women’s issues, are facilitated by bilingual social workers and are held in the office of the MHA of Southwestern New Jersey, located just two blocks from the probation office.

In addition to being held in a nonthreatening environment, Reynolds said, pizza and hoagies are offered to those attending the sessions, which have attracted 60 probationers over the past year.

Reynolds noted that excessive anger and substance abuse are frequently indicators of other underlying mental health problems such as depression or traumatic loss.

Reynolds added that given the "horrific" environments in which some of the youth have been raised—environments that include poverty, sexual and physical abuse, and neglect—"it would take an exceptional person not to develop mental health problems."

Establishing mental health screening for every youth who comes through the Camden County Probation Department—and providing treatment to those who need it—is a primary goal of the MHA of Southwestern New Jersey, Reynolds said.

"The positive attention, nurturing, and self-esteem building in groups is the first step to helping these kids to lead healthier lives," she said, noting that many youth in the juvenile justice system have a mistrust of mental health professionals. "It is our hope that the trust built between youth and mental health professionals established in these groups carries over into future mental health care." ▪

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Discussing how to help New Jersey youth who are on probation and have untreated substance abuse and mental health problems in New Jersey are (from left) Mary Lynne Reynolds, executive director of the MHA in Southwestern New Jersey; Hazel Moran, associate director of juvenile justice at NMHA; and Jennifer Miller, director of training and marketing for the MHA of New Jersey.

Staff at the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) and its New Jersey affiliate appeared at the 2003 NMHA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., in June to discuss the steps they have taken to address the problem of youth who are on probation and have untreated substance abuse and mental health problems.

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