Researchers at the University of Adelaide have suggested that if juvenile offenders held in detention have any real hope of rehabilitation, their physical and mental health needs to be treated as a priority. They arrived at this conclusion after a comprehensive review of past studies into the health of young offenders undertaken in the US, UK, Europe and Australia since 1997.
"Health - both mental and physical health - is an issue that has a serious impact on young offenders," says lead study author Dr. Anne Wilson, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Nursing.
"The health of young offenders is commonly poorer in comparison with the general youth population. Previous studies document the growing concern for the health of young offenders, including their risk-related behaviours, mental health, social and family problems, and other physical health deficits.
"The underlying problems affecting these young offenders need to be addressed as a priority if they are to be successfully rehabilitated and reintegrated into the community," she adds.
Phillip Tully, a PhD student in the School of Psychology who co-authored the study, says that the review identifies various factors for successful mental health and trauma care-such as improving existing mental health services; identifying mental health problems with a high-quality screening process; ongoing support within and outside of secure care; improving the availability of services; and linking offenders directly to primary health or mental health services on release.
The researchers believe that improving young offenders' access to health care could go some way to addressing their poor physical health status.
"However, additional social factors, such as education, peer support and family support, are likely to determine whether young offenders access the services they need," says Dr. Wilson.
"There is little doubt that those released from secure care face immense challenges to maintaining their health and well-being.
"Many young offenders live in social conditions that are not conducive to achieving a healthy state. They are commonly exposed to poverty, social disadvantage, abuse and family dysfunction, and these factors may promote high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, coping problems, truancy and low educational attainment.
"These social, familial, personal and peer-group factors can lead to repeat offender behaviour and to a generational cycle of health problems. This is most clearly seen in neighbourhoods where drugs are readily available to young people, where they are exposed to adult substance abuse, live in single-parent households, have caregivers with low levels of education, and receive government aid," she adds.
According to her, effective planning is needed to address ongoing health issues experienced by young offenders when they are released from detention.
"Young offenders have diverse and complex needs. By utilizing a comprehensive screening measure, individual plans can be formulated upon the offender's admission to secure care, with a view to looking ahead to their eventual discharge and their return to society."
The study has been reported in the Australian Journal of Primary Health.