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Mental health Rising Star says a health focus is vital to help kids in detention

Institute News
Published: 
Monday, December 3, 2018 - 11:04am

Programs to improve the health and prospects of kids in detention are also more likely to reduce reoffending than “getting tough on crime”, according to Murdoch Children’s Research Institute Senior Research Fellow and the Society for Mental Health Research’s 2018 Rising Star Dr Rohan Borschmann.

Dr Borschmann says most young people enter the justice system because of tragic and traumatic life events, and empathic approaches are likely to be more helpful than harsh, punitive measures.

Receiving his award this evening, Dr Borschmann says the prize is a humbling recognition of his 18 years working in mental health and, more recently, supporting the health of young people in the justice system.

“Right now we’re working on a systematic review of the health of kids in detention and it’s just abysmal; it’s a really sad state of affairs looking at the general health profiles of these young people,” Dr Borschmann says.

“If we can use that to motivate policymakers to improve the health of this population, the research shows that better health leads to a better quality of life, including a reduction in reoffending.” Dr Borschmann says he is often frustrated by community attitudes of “so what” when it comes to helping young people within the justice system.

“If you ask the average person in the street if they’d be willing to donate a dollar to kids who have been abused, kids who have parents in prison or come from families with domestic violence, homelessness or substance abuse problems, a fairly good proportion would say yes,” he says.

“But once you ask about kids in the justice system, people seem to think they have chosen to do these crimes and have brought it on themselves. But they are the same kids who have these incredibly traumatic histories.”

Dr Borschmann saw first-hand the chain of life events that leads young people into the justice system while working as a psychologist at a Queensland prison.

“I learned early on that the people in that prison typically had had pretty tough upbringings,” he says.

“I thought that if we could go back in time and intervene during childhood or adolescence that would be a good place to start.”

Among his wish list for improving the health of youth in detention are collecting national data on the basic health of this population and investing in health-based transitional support to commence before they are released from detention. He would also like to increase the age of criminal responsibility (currently set at 10 years old in Australia).

“We know that just locking them up and ‘getting tough on crime’ doesn’t work; it isn’t the answer. There needs to be much more creative and sympathetic responses to this,” Dr Borschmann says.

“Research shows that the further into the justice system somebody penetrates - getting a slap on the wrist versus ending up in jail - the higher the risk of mortality for that person.”

Following his adolescent interest in observing people’s behaviour, Dr Borschmann studied behavioural science at LaTrobe University, where he discovered a fascination for the forensic
aspects of psychology.

Later, as part of his clinical PhD studies at London’s King College, Dr Borschman designed a joint crisis plan to reduce self-harm among people with borderline personality disorder, an initiative which
has since been adapted for clinical use by two NHS Trusts in the United Kingdom. He also rates his 2016 NHMRC Early Career Fellowship as a significant highlight.

The Society for Mental Health Research Rising Star Award recognises a researcher whose work is beginning to make a significant scientific or public impact on the national and international scene.

A keen collaborator, Dr Borschmann, who is also an honorary fellow with the University of Melbourne, is currently working with MCRI Professors George Patton and Stuart Kinner focusing on marginalised young people, in particular those in contact with the youth justice system.

“One thing that is misunderstood about our work is that often people think we are simply trying to reduce reoffending, which is what we call a ‘criminocentric’ approach. That’s obviously important, but it’s not really our focus,” Dr Borschmann explains.

“For a variety of reasons, these young people have come into contact with the youth justice system. We’re trying to improve their health after this initial contact so that they can go on to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.”

Available for interview:
· Dr Rohan Borschmann, MCRI Senior Research Fellow, Population Health

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