DJJ mental health expert discusses inner workings of adolescent brain

Heather Bowlds, Associate Director of Mental Health at the Division of Juvenile Justice, teaches an adolescent brain class to inmate mentors and staff at California State Prison-Solano.

Heather Bowlds, Associate Director of Mental Health at the Division of Juvenile Justice, teaches an adolescent brain class to inmate mentors and staff at California State Prison-Solano.

By Joe Orlando, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

The human brain is not fully developed until around age 25, which may help explain why teenagers and people in their early 20s don’t always act or react in the same way as adults.

Psychologist Heather Bowlds, Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Associate Director of Mental Health, visited California State Prison-Solano (SOL) to explain the adolescent brain to inmate mentors and staff.

“Have you ever seen a young offender throw a tantrum, or do something that leaves you scratching your head?” she asked. Plenty of hands went up.

“Most adolescents struggle to find ways to express themselves,” explained Bowlds.

Many of the inmate mentors work directly with the young offenders who come to SOL, through programs like the Youthful Offender Program which allows eligible inmates ages 18 to 22 to enter prison at lower custody levels. If their crime brought them in at a Level IV (maximum-security), they may be able to be classified as Level III, or if they came in as Level IIIs they can enter as Level IIs.

Bowlds told the mentors it’s their job to hold the young offenders accountable, but also to let them know that they’ll still be there for them.

“That’s a fine line we’re walking,” one inmate observed.

“If they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to hear what you say,” Bowlds responded.

Growing up is tough enough as it is, she told the crowd, but the young offenders they’re dealing struggle even more due to the impact of neuro-developmental delays, trauma histories, mental health issues and substance abuse histories. All this, Bowlds said, affects the adolescent brain.

“Over 90 percent report at least one traumatic experience, the average reported being six,” she explained. “The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder rates with these youth are similar to those of service members returning from deployment in Iraq.”

Bowlds explained it’s very hard for these young people to trust anyone, because of their negative life experiences. Too many times growing up they trusted those that they shouldn’t have, like fellow gang members or criminals.

At DJJ, Bowlds has overseen changes in mental health care that saw a once-troubled system transform over the past several years into one now considered a national model.

In 2014, she was presented the Christine M. West Award by the Forensic Mental Health Association of California for her significant contributions to the field of forensic mental health. She was also recently honored at the CDCR Medal of Valor ceremony as the 2016 DJJ Professional of the Year.

She reminded the audience that they may be providing the parental guidance these young men lacked in their lives.

“At this young age, they may be seeing the world as black and white, not so much gray,” she explained. “You need to try and understand where they are coming from. What you can do is take a little time and listen to them and just be there.”

This was all new for those in the audience, many of whom were hearing about how and why young people act the way they do for the first time.

Many of the inmate mentors often nodded in agreement and recalled their own youth, when they were the ones no one seemed to understand.

“I never knew most of this stuff,” one inmate said. “I just assumed that these young guys were just being difficult because they wanted to prove themselves. To understand how and why they do the things they do is fascinating and very helpful.”

“The next time they (the young offenders) are acting up, I’m just going to think about what I learned here, and remember that they are just not where we are, brain-wise, and try to be a little more patient,” another inmate added.

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1 Response

  1. Mike Horn Tuesday, October 4, 2016 / 6:05 pm

    Very encouraged by these developments and hope I can be a part of this program at some point.

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