Understanding Juvenile Delinquency and Mental Illness

Table of Content


Psychopathy and bi-polar behaviors are linked to brain and cognitive dysfunctions. Such behaviors are also associated with delinquency and criminality in general. Amongst children in particular, such traits are identifiable from a young age. The purpose of this paper will be to explore the biological and psychological traits of delinquent offenders with mental illnesses that have been involved in violent behavior. Further, the basis of this paper will be to understand situations and circumstances from the offender’s point of view in order to provide some level of explanation for justifying such behavior. Micro-level theories such as the Trait and Biosocial theory will be analyzed in relation to this topic. Macro and Mid-Range theories such as the Rational Choice Theory, as well as the Differential Association Theory will also be assessed. Mental health disorders surrounding young, delinquent offenders have been prevalent in the criminal justice system for quite some time now. This paper will aim to address such issues, and delve deeper to understand the reasoning behind delinquency among those suffering from mental illnesses.

Keywords: mental illness, juvenile delinquency, deviant behavior, violence, psychopathy, bipolar disorder

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Understanding Juvenile Delinquency and Mental Illness


Juvenile delinquency stems from a multitude of factors. There is not one exact explanation to determine deviant behaviors amongst youths.

What is Juvenile Delinquency?

Juvenile delinquency involves any minor under the age of eighteen-years old, that engages in violent, or non-violent deviant behaviors that violate the law (Mallet, Stoddard Dare, and Seck, 2009). Juvenile delinquency is also explained through biological, social, and psychological factors (Cullen, Agnew, and Wilcox, 2018). Various theories, such as biosocial and trait theories, the rational choice theory, and the differential association theory help explain the cause behind why delinquent offenders engage in such deviancy (Cullen, Agnew, and Wilcox, 2018).

Juvenile Delinquency and Mental Illness. Mental illnesses are a prevalent cause that identify with juvenile delinquency, and why it occurs. According to the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health (2003), five to ten percent of youths suffer from mental health disorders that significantly impact familial, educational, and societal ties. There are many mental health issues associated with juvenile delinquency, but some of the most common are psychopathy and bi-polar disorder (Pechorro et al., 2014; Mallet et al., 2009). Psychopathy is defined as “a syndrome that remains throughout life and encompasses a constellation of extreme interpersonal, emotional, behavioral, and lifestyle traits (Pechorro et al., 2014, p. 175). In children specifically, psychopathic traits are shown through impulsive actions, lack of attention, and “conduct disorder,” which relates to antisocial behavioral traits (Pechorro et al., 2014, p. 176). Further, lack of emotion and narcissistic patterns are also prevalent in youths diagnosed with juvenile psychopathy (Pechorro et al., 2014). There is also a link between psychopathy and conduct disorder, which encompass asocial tendencies, repeated violence and criminal offenses, and impulsive behaviors (Pechorro et al., 2014).

Bipolar disorder, also referred to as manic depression, stems from a brain condition that produces abnormal changes in mood (National Institute of Mental Health, 2015). Children diagnosed with bipolar disorder may experience intense mood swings, altered energy levels, and are unable to focus (National Institute of Mental Health, 2015). Bipolar disorder includes a wide range of symptoms ranging from risky behavior, speaking very fast on various topics, changes in sleeping patterns, having an ill-temper, extreme sadness, and suicidal tendencies, among many other episodes (National Institute of Mental Health, 2015).

Juvenile delinquency and mental illnesses such as psychopathy and bipolar disorder are interrelated as these conditions lead to changes in behavioral and emotional awareness (Mallet et al., 2009). Youths diagnosed with these mental disorders are typically emotionally apathetic and unable to perceive the consequences of their actions (Eme, 2015). Understanding how mental illness affects and influences deviant behavior is essential to gaining an understanding on why delinquent offenders rationalize such behavior.

Understanding Mental Illness and Deviant Behavior through Criminological Theories

Mental illnesses stem from biological factors, as well as psychological and social disorders and interactions (Cullen, Agnew, and Wilcox, 2018). Biosocial and Trait theories explain how certain factors from a young age predict delinquency and criminality later in life (Cullen, Agnew, and Wilcox, 2018). The Rational Choice Theory explains how criminality is a choice, and individual’s weigh the costs and benefits of crimes to determine when engaging in such behavior is rational in their view (Cullen, Agnew, and Wilcox, 2018). The Differential Association Theory, or the Social Learning Theory states that engaging in criminality and accepting deviant, or antisocial behavior is learned through peer interactions (Cullen, Agnew, and Wilcox, 2018).

Biosocial and Trait Theories. The biosocial and trait theories assert that criminality is correlated with biological, psychological, and social factors (Cullen, Agnew, and Wilcox, 2018). Biological factors are explained as “neurological impairment,” whereas psychological factors are correlated with abuse and trauma at a young age (Sukyirun, 2016, p. 110). Social factors include searching for approval amongst peers, even if it involves criminal activity (Sukyirun, 2016).

In relation to biological factors, damage and dysfunctions of the prefrontal brain cortex lead to violent behaviors (Steinert and Whittington, 2013). Further, Steinert and Whittington (2013) note that impairments in the brain due to head injury are correlated with heightened aggression. Steinert and Whittington (2013) state, “With regard to neural transmission, availability of serotonin in prefrontal brain structures is possibly the neurochemical pathway which mediates aggression in that low levels are associated with increased violence propensity” (p. 169).


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  2. Cullen, F. T., Agnew, R., & Wilcox, P. (2018). Criminological theory: past and present. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Eme, R. (2015). Beauchaine ontogenic process model of externalizing psychopathology a biosocial theory of crime and delinquency. Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(5), 443-449. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2015.04.011
  4. New Freedom Commission on Mental Health (2003) Achieving the promise: Transforming mental health care in America, Final Report, p. 2, Rockville, MD, DHHS #SMA-03–3832. http://www. mentalhealthcommission.gov/reports/reports/htm [19 August 2008].
  5. Mallett, C. A., Stoddard Dare, P., & Seck, M. (2009). Predicting juvenile delinquency: The nexus of childhood maltreatment, depression and bipolar disorder. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 19(4), 235-246. doi:10.1002/cbm.737
  6. Pechorro, P., Gonçalves, R., Maroco, J., Gama, A., Neves, S., & Nunes, C. (2014). Juvenile Delinquency and Psychopathic Traits: An Empirical Study With Portuguese Adolescents. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 58(2), 174-189. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306624X12465584
  7. Steinert, T., & Whittington, R. (2013). A bio-psycho-social model of violence related to mental health problems. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 36(2), 168-175. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2013.01.009
  8. Sukyirun, P. (2016). Biosocial Interaction and Juvenile Delinquency Behaviors of Thai Juvenile Delinquents. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 11(2), 100-113.

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Understanding Juvenile Delinquency and Mental Illness. (2022, Feb 08). Retrieved from


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