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Childhood exposure to incarceration causes depression later in life

Young adults with a childhood history of exposure to the criminal justice system are nearly three times as likely to develop depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to their peers, according to a new study. These individuals are also twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as young adults. 

Study lead author Dr. Nia Heard-Garris is a pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and an instructor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“This is a particularly vulnerable and understudied population. Incarceration impacts families across generations, and youth who had a parent in jail or prison more often find themselves in the juvenile justice system,” said Dr. Heard-Garris. “Young adults with histories of both juvenile incarceration and parental incarceration as children had a strong association with poor mental health outcomes in young adulthood.”

In the United States, five million children have had a parent incarcerated. These kids are estimated to have triple the rate of involvement in the juvenile justice system compared to children with no history of parental incarceration.

The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to Adult Health to investigate the mental health outcomes of children exposed to both parental incarceration and the juvenile justice system. 

“Our analyses highlight that a history of both parental incarceration and juvenile justice involvement occurs for 1 out of every 100 U.S. children overall and is disproportionately more common among youth of color,” said Dr. Heard-Garris.

However, the researchers determined that children with dual incarceration exposure had an increased likelihood of developing mental health issues regardless of race, or any other relevant factors like age and family structure.

In addition, the poor mental health outcomes associated with a history of parental incarceration or juvenile justice involvement were found to occur independently of one another.

“Currently parental incarceration is considered an adverse childhood experience, but juvenile justice involvement is not,” said Dr. Heard-Garris. “Given the increased risk for poor mental health outcomes we found in our study, perhaps we should also consider juvenile justice involvement an adverse childhood experience and start screening youth for any incarceration exposure during typical healthcare visits. This would allow us to further support vulnerable patients by connecting them with appropriate resources.”

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/RimDream

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