The phenomenon of young offenders with mental health issues is a common European problem to be addressed. Recently more attention has been given to the trend of minors and young people who carry out criminal behavior and who also suffer from mental health disturbance or illness, associated in large part with the consumption and abuse of substances. These are minors and young people in whom mental illness, either alone or in combination with addiction to toxic substances, has been the cause or a contributing factor to the occurrence of antisocial behavior.
When in 2006 a European Union strategy on mental health was mentioned, the European Parliament pointed out that with regards to adult delinquents “approximately 40% of prisoners suffer from some form of mental illness, and the probability of them committing suicide is seven times greater compared to people who are integrated into society. Inadequate prison conditions can aggravate illness and impede rehabilitation”. In the case of young detainees, they have a greater tendency to develop mental illness than adults, given that 95% of them suffer from at least one mental health issue and 80% suffer from more than one illness. According to Prison Reform Trust, the probability of minors of detention age committing suicide is eighteen times higher than for people who live in the community.
There is growing evidence – from scientific research and juvenile justice professionals — that many young offenders in juvenile justice systems throughout the world have symptoms of mental disorders and serious drug use problems. Reliable research in several countries has found that one-half to two-thirds of youth entering pre-trial detention centres meet the criteria for one or more mental disorders. , Indeed, this is a significant problem, even more so if these needs remain unidentified and unaddressed, with significant long-term effects on their life chances and, on their physical and mental health and well-being.
Central to the issue of mentally ill juveniles is the question of their penal responsibility. In theory, when defendants are found to be mentally unstable, they cannot be convicted of a crime due to their reduced/diminished capacity. However, juvenile justice professionals tend to overlook signs and symptoms of mental health problems in young offenders and consequently hand out sentences of a restrictive rather than therapeutic nature. Such sentences can only exacerbate mental problems.
Furthermore, the lack of adequate treatment as well as accurate strategies and policies to deal with mentally ill juveniles is evident. There is also the inadequate training of professionals in the justice sector and the lack of collaboration of the health sector which further complicates the efficacy of the responses to juveniles with mental health problems.
The most crucial task for the EU as well as national entities is the recognition of the needs of young offenders with mental health problems, when designing the policies and strategies in the fields of justice, health or children’s rights. A prevailing objective for European countries, instead of institutionalising mental health illnesses through prisons, juvenile justice or health organisations, should be facilitating the provision of individual resources adapted to the particular needs of children and young offenders with mental health issues - through for example creation of specific units or community therapy.
In the face of the numerous international standards and rules safeguarding the rights and well-being of children including juveniles, this situation is unacceptable.
In this context, and within the DAPHNE III Programme, the European Commission supported the International Juvenile Justice Observatory (IJJO) in the development and coordination of a comparative research project into the current situation of young offenders with mental health problems in Europe. Consequently, the innovative project entitled ‘European Comparative Analysis and Knowledge Transfer of Mental Health Resources for Young Offenders’ (MHYO) has been developed and completed between December 2009 to December 2011.