Dept. of Education

Mental Health

It is normal for children and youth to experience various types of emotional distress as they develop and mature. For example, it is common for children to experience anxiety about school, or youth to experience short periods of depression that are transient in nature. When symptoms persist, it may be time to seek professional assistance. While most youth are healthy, physically and emotionally, one in every four to five youth in the general population meet criteria for a lifetime mental disorder and as a result may face discrimination and negative attitudes.1 As with physical health, mental health is not merely the absence of disease or a mental health disorder. It includes emotional well-being, psychological well-being, social well-being2 and involves being able to

  • navigate successfully the complexities of life,
  • develop fulfilling relationships,
  • adapt to change,
  • utilize appropriate coping mechanisms to achieve well-being without discrimination.
  • realize their potential,
  • have their needs met, and
  • develop skills that help them navigate the different environments they inhabit.3

The presence or absence of various combinations of protective and risk factors contribute to the mental health of youth and efforts can be undertaken to promote positive mental health and prevent or minimize mental health problems. Youth with mental health disorders may face challenges in their homes, school, community, and interpersonal relationships. Despite these challenges, for most youth, mental health distress is episodic, not permanent, and most can successfully navigate the challenges that come from experiencing a mental health disorder with treatment, peer and professional supports and services, and a strong family and social support network. 

1 Merikangas, He, Burstein, et al., 2010
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2011; CDC, Health-Related Quality of Life, 2011
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2004

Children of Incarcerated Parents

Having a parent in prison can have an impact on a child’s mental health, social behavior, and educational prospects.1 The emotional trauma that may occur and the practical difficulties of a disrupted family life can be compounded by the social stigma that children may face as a result of having a parent in prison or jail.2 Children who have an incarcerated parent may experience financial hardship that results from the loss of that parent’s income.3 Further, some incarcerated parents face termination of parental rights because their children have been in the foster care system beyond the time allowed by law4 or have questions about child support. These children require support from local, state, and federal systems to serve their needs.

Children of incarcerated parents may also face a number of other challenging circumstances. They may have experienced trauma related to their parent’s arrest or experiences leading up to it.5 Children of incarcerated parents may also be more likely to have faced other adverse childhood experiences, including witnessing violence in their communities or directly in their household or exposure to drug and alcohol abuse.6

For more information and resources on these overlapping problems, please see the additional links and resources in this youth topic:

For Parents and Caregivers

For Law Enforcement and Corrections Personnel

For School Administration and Teachers

For Child Welfare/Social Work and Clinical Professionals

1 La Vigne, Davies, & Brazzell, 2008
2 La Vigne et al., 2008
3 General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2011
4 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), 2011
5 La Vigne et al., 2008
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2013; Phillips & Gleeson, 2007