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Researchers examine rates of suicidal thoughts among first-time offenders

Michael Tapia
Henrika McCoy

Michael Tapia (top photo) and Henrika McCoy

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(Oct. 28, 2014) -- Researchers at UTSA and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) are approaching data obtained from mental health screenings of offenders in the juvenile justice system in a new way, especially as it pertains to Hispanic youth.

Michael Tapia, an assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Criminal Justice, colleague Henrika McCoy, an assistant professor with the UIC Jane Addams College of Social Work, and Lynsey Tucker, a graduate student in the UTSA Department of Social Work, worked with the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department to examine mental health evaluations of juvenile offenders aged 10 to 17 years old in the county's juvenile justice system over a six-month period.

The researchers hoped to understand the correlation between types of crimes committed and any occurrences of suicidal thoughts among juvenile offenders. Additionally, they wanted to explore whether juveniles' specific cultural and ethnic backgrounds -- in this case Bexar County's sizeable Hispanic population -- had an effect on likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

"Suicide is the leading cause of death for confined juvenile offenders," said Tapia. "In all of the research we came across, we found that few, if any, studies looked at whether the type of crimes these juveniles committed could be used as indicators to measure the likelihood that they would entertain suicidal thoughts. None focused specifically on Hispanic youth living in predominately Hispanic areas."

The researchers used screening data from the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument-2 (MAYSI-2), currently used in more than 200 juvenile detention and corrections facilities across the country to assess mental health at the time of confinement.

The MAYSI-2 is a screening tool used by the juvenile justice system to identify youth in need of immediate mental health, emotional or behavior help. The 52-item self-report screens for seven different mental health scales: alcohol/drug use, anger or irritability, depression or anxiety, somatic or physical complaints, traumatic experiences, thought disturbance (males only, tests for thought disorders) and suicidal ideation or thoughts.

"The MAYSI-2 is a widely used tool for mental health screening," said McCoy. "By all accounts, it's a good tool to assess average mental health needs at the time of intake. It, however, might not be tailored to meet the needs of all juvenile offenders equally."

A recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics noted juvenile offenders are three times more likely to commit suicide when confined in corrections or juvenile justice facilities. Using MAYSI-2 data, the researchers found that in their six-month period of study, first-time offenders of all genders, racial and ethnic groups who committed violent crimes were consistently rated higher for suicidal thoughts or inclinations.

However, when the researchers studied the data further, they began to question whether the standardized nature of the MAYSI-2 might put minority youth, specifically African-American and Hispanic juvenile offenders, at a disadvantage during the screening process. Innate cultural biases present in the screening -- the phrasing of certain "yes/no" questions, for example -- might prevent Hispanic or black youth from properly ticking off indicators that would get them necessary help. According to the researchers, many minority youth might struggle to adequately understand the meanings of certain questions due to either language barriers or lack of exposure to certain concepts.

This line of thought led the researchers to another surprising revelation. In the records they studied, the majority of Hispanic youth tested less likely to experience suicidal thoughts compared to their peers of other racial or ethnic groups. Something in the cultural experiences of Hispanic juvenile offenders made them more prone to resist suicidal inclinations common among other first-time offenders in the county.

"We expected Hispanic juvenile offenders to have higher rates of suicidal thoughts than they showed during this period," said Tapia. "These youth deal with many societal factors that are known stressors for depression and suicidal predilection, but there exists a cultural resiliency that resists the screening capabilities of the MAYSI-2. This requires further research to determine whether if this is cultural or a result of the screening tool's limitations."

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For more information, visit the University of Illinois at Chicago and the UIC Jane Addams College of Social Work websites, and the UTSA Department of Criminal Justice and the UTSA College of Public Policy websites.

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