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Pathologising Youth Development and Risk

Haines, A and Perkins, E and Whittington, R (2016) Pathologising Youth Development and Risk. UNSPECIFIED. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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Abstract

Background. Many aspects of daily life have become medicalised these days. The latest revision of the predominant psychiatric classification system, DSM-V, has generated significant controversy amongst professionals, sociological thinkers, and service users because of the way in which new specific diagnoses have been added. One of the major debates has been around diagnosing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, irrespective of whether the disruptive behaviour associated with a diagnosis of ADHD is a manifestation of mental disorder or not, it is a common feature amongst youth and adult offender populations. Recognition of this association between a set of behaviours and certain outcomes, together with application of the medicalization concept, has led to the development worldwide of youth justice diversion programmes which aim to identify young people who have come to the attention of the police but whose problems are considered to be mental health vulnerabilities rather than moral deficiencies requiring punishment and/or rehabilitation. Methods. In this paper we draw on data gathered from an evaluation of a Youth Justice Liaison Diversion (YJLD) pilot scheme in England, UK, to explore the way in which the ‘risky’ behaviours of some young people can become defined as mental health issues. The data reported here were gathered from 24 interviews with children and young people aged between 11 and 17 years old and engaging with the YJLD scheme, and 25 interviews with professional stakeholders collaborating with the scheme. Results. Findings suggest that, while the anti-social behaviour of the young people interviewed was perceived as problematic to society and to some parents, it was viewed as a relatively normal part of growing up by the young people themselves, and their peer group. Mental health professionals talked about the stigma of mental health and the difficulty in engaging families with services, but also recognised that the complexity of social and familial problems underpinning young people’s lives could explain their vulnerabilities and emotional issues, contributing to or resulting in their offending behaviour. Perspectives and future research. This paper argues that the value of orienting young people toward the mental health system rather than the criminal justice system depends on the perspective adopted. Treating people and their behaviours with medication and therapy versus incarcerating them represents two ends of a spectrum. Tackling the fundamental inequalities which exist in society and which remain inextricably linked to the kind of future that young people can access may help prevent the emergence of some of these behaviours but rely on investment of huge resources and political will. As this study was limited by the small number of interviews and a convenience sample, future qualitative research should try to build on it and unearth the ways in which ‘mental health’ or ‘offending’ labels affect young people’s own perceptions and lives.

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