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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Police (and others) Facing Adolescence

‘Normal’? Mental illness? Can be hard to tell . . .

Camia Weaver

Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp. 8-9

Historically, the police perspective has been focused on law enforcement: containment through the use of authority and physical force as the primary objective, with arrest and criminal charges following. Things have changed.

In response to social trends, police organizations these days focus more on community policing—with crime prevention, foot and bicycle patrols, and community education forming a major part of their role in the community—rather than just crime fighting. At the same time, a trend toward integrating people with mental illness into the community has led to a dramatic increase in their interactions with police—hence the term sometimes applied to police: “psychiatrists in blue.”

Many police agencies have developed models of effective response to people with mental illness, especially in crisis situations. Basic education on recognizing symptoms and knowing the best way to respond form the core of most programs. This is a very positive step, and one that most police value for allowing them to provide better service and protection to the community.

Unfortunately, this response information does not address issues that may come up among those in that stage of life known as “adolescence.”

Adolescence can be hard—both for teens and for those around them. Puberty and adolescence are hormonal and emotional roller coasters. This is complicated by elements of rebellion, risk-taking behaviour, poor judgment and mood swings, including anger, euphoria and depression. It was recently discovered that these elements are partly due to a spurt of brain development in the frontal lobes occurring at puberty and continuing through the early twenties. The frontal lobes—responsible for functions like self-control, judgment, emotional regulation and organization—grow and become refined during this period, developing into the mature brain at about 25 years.1

If hormones and normal brain development were all there is to it, it would be relatively simple to manage. But there’s more. Adolescence is also when most mental disorders—including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—surface for the first time. Telling the difference between ‘normal’ teen behaviour and mental illness, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, is difficult. The behaviours may look the same. Risky behaviour (like car racing, sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drug abuse or extreme physical activity), feelings of invincibility, moodiness, aggression, withdrawal, poor
impulse control, defiance and excitability, for example, all fall within the normal range of teenage behaviour—and are also symptomatic of mental illnesses.


Why is it important to discern between normal teen behaviour and signs of mental illness? Because mental illness should not be punished or criminalized. More  importantly, early diagnosis and treatment of mental illness dramatically improves the chance for recovery.

Properly discovering and responding to youth mental illness can seem like an impossible task. The stigma of mental illness—especially in the emotional and social vulnerability of adolescence—can cause a youth to desperately conceal or deny symptoms, choosing the criminal label and consequences over the label of “mental illness.” To a teen, this label means social death, teasing, bullying and rejection—the last thing any kid needs.

The most important tool for effectively addressing youth mental illness is knowledge. Awareness of the rate of mental illness among youth and its effect on behaviour is essential. For example, four out of five runaway youth suffer from depression, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. BC statistics indicate that more than 140,000 of the 580,000 children and youth in BC over the age of six are estimated to have mental disorders that impair functioning.2 Most of these are teens, since mental illnesses become symptomatic during adolescence. At the same time, 3,000 youth were in custody—and again, it is reasonable to conclude that many of these youth have some form of mental illness.

Not making assumptions about the reasons for adolescent behaviour is a necessity—not just for police, but also for parents, teachers, school counsellors, youth corrections staff, and other professionals who interact with troubled teens daily. Many adults are still inclined to label difficult youth. They may feel that young people need punishment to deter further bad behaviour. Suspension from school and incarceration in youth detention centres are all too common.

Patience, an open mind and the drive to make many efforts to discover underlying issues are also necessary. It is not always appropriate to just give youth the chance and incentive to correct behaviour. If the behaviour is a symptom of mental illness, youth will not be able to correct it through willpower alone.

Finally, increasing public awareness of mental illness—especially among youth—is an important step. If we can all recognize that mental illness is just that—an illness—the stigma fades and it is easier for youth to seek and get help at an early stage.

Camia is Provincial Coordinator of the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division’s ongoing Mental Health and Police Project to improve police and emergency service response to persons with mental illness. After almost 20 years as a practising lawyer, she is actively committed to facilitating community empowerment and restorative practices.


About the author
Camia is Provincial Coordinator of Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division's ongoing Mental Health and Police Project to improve police and emergency service respnse to persons with mental illness. After almost 20 years as  practising lawyer, she is actively committed to facilitating community empowerment and restorative practices.
  1. Wallis, C. & Dell, K. (2004, May 10). What makes teens tick? Time, 163(19).

  2. Ministry of Children and Family Development. (n.d.). 2003/04 Annual Service Plan Report. Victoria, BC: author.



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