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Posted: 18 May 2007

83% of young people in detention schools have at least one psychiatric disorder, according to new research

A new research report shows young people in detention schools in Ireland experience very high rates of psychiatric disorders, engage in serious criminality, and have significant deficits in emotional intelligence and cognitive ability. The report, Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health and Juvenile Delinquency, which was prepared by Dr. Jennifer Margaret Hayes and Dr. Gary O’ Reilly, UCD School of Psychology, was launched at an international conference in the O’ Reilly Hall, University College Dublin on 18 May 2007.

This is the first time that researchers, anywhere in the world, have examined whether young people in detention for criminality have deficits in emotional intelligence.  The research compared young people residing in detention schools to young people referred to a community psychiatry service and to young people who did not have offending or mental health problems.  There was no significant difference in the ages across the three groups and the young people in the offender group were aged 14.9 years on average

Dr Hayes explains that the new research found that staff working in detention schools for young boys under 16 years in Ireland can expect that approximately eight out of every ten boys in their care will meet diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder.

“High rates of co-morbidity (multiple psychiatric problems) were also identified with an average of 3.1 psychiatric disorders being experienced by detainees,” says Dr Hayes. “This equates to almost three times as many psychiatric problems as boys who have been referred to a psychiatry service because their difficulties are considered so serious.”

“Given the high rates of psychiatric difficulties it was not surprising that about one fifth of boys in the offender group were experiencing thoughts of suicide at the time of data collection and that a similar number reported that they had attempted to take their lives on at least one occasion in the past,” she continues.

According to Dr. Hayes, a total of 37% of detained young people included in this research were experiencing internalising psychiatric problems such as anxiety disorders and depression and 68% met diagnostic criteria for externalising / disruptive disorder such as conduct disorder, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). 

“The levels of substance use and substance dependency disorders amongst young people detained in Ireland is a matter of grave concern.  Fifty six per cent of detainees met diagnostic criteria for at least one substance dependency disorder and 20% were experiencing a substance use disorder.”

“Approximately equal numbers of the detained young people with addictions reported using cocaine as did the numbers using alcohol and cannabis.  Results also suggest that drug use begins in early childhood. Such young people with substance dependency disorders reported that they first began to use alcohol and cannabis at an average age of just nine years and cocaine use at 13 years of age on average.”  

Dr Jennifer Margaret Hayes explains that the research report also highlights the serious levels of criminality that exist amongst young people in detention schools in Ireland.

“Results demonstrate that approximately one in three boys were serving time on foot of at least one interpersonally violent crime and that on average each child had 11 charges made against them,” she says. “A total of 77% of the young people interviewed were detained in a different detention school on at least one other point in time, pointing to high rates of re-offending.”

In relation to the area of emotional intelligence, Dr Hayes and Dr O’Reilly’s research shows that detainees experience deficits similar to those found amongst young people referred to a psychiatry service.

“Young people in detention possess a reduced capacity to accurately perceive emotions in themselves and in others; a reduced ability to use emotions to prioritise thinking and a reduced ability to regulate their emotions. The research also demonstrated that young people in detention experience significant cognitive deficits; 21% of the young people assessed had full-scale IQ scores in the intellectual disability range”.

Dr Hayes says that the difficulties highlighted in the report are not addressed through current service provision for these young people.

“The vast majority fail to receive any treatment for psychiatric problems whatsoever. The report highlights the importance of addressing these difficulties. In addition to reducing the debilitating effects that mental health problems have on a child’s functioning and development, treatment will lead to a significant reduction in offending behaviour and criminality and therefore, has significant cost benefits for society, the legal system and the Irish State”.

Dr. Hayes and Dr. O’Reilly set out a number of key recommendations to address the difficulties outlined in their report including:

  • The development of policies which specify the role that detention has to play in meeting the mental health needs of detainees and the manner in which this should be achieved;
  • The development of an ethos which highlights the considerable opportunities for intervention that detainment offers and the need to exploit such opportunities is also essential;
  • The requirement for significant service development to meet the needs of these young people. This should include the development of multi-disciplinary assessment and intervention teams to break patterns of offending behaviour, to treat mental health problems and to improve emotional competency;
  • The development of risk assessment procedures;
  • The use of evidence-based and cost effective assessment and treatment programmes that are scientifically shown to be effective;
  • The continuation of on-going research to improve our understanding of this complex group and to enhance our understanding of how best to break patterns of offending behaviour, improve mental health and emotional competency.

The conference was supported by Oberstown Boys School, Trinity House and Finglas Child and Adolescent Centre which are Children Detention Schools under the remit of the Irish Youth Justice Service of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and also by St Joseph’s Ferryhouse, which comes under the remit of the HSE.

This international conference is co-funded by the Irish Youth Justice Service and the Special Residential Services Board (SRSB).

Other speakers at the conference were:

Dr. Jennifer Margaret Hayes – UCD and HSE
Prof. Gail A. Wasserman, Columbia University, USA
Prof. James McGuire, Liverpool University, UK
Brian Hogan, Director Oberstown Boys School, Dublin
Noel Howard, St. Joseph’s Ferryhouse, Dublin
Dr. Marc Brackett, Yale University, USA
Prof. Rueven Bar-On, University of Texas, USA

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