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The Mental Health Consequences of Parental Incarceration: Evidence from a Nationally Representative Longitudinal Study of Adolescents through Adulthood in the United States

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Little is known about how school and community conditions may impact the mental well-being of children with incarcerated parents. The present study investigates whether adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) measured at the family, school, and community levels explain the relationship between having incarcerated parents during childhood and mental health of young adults. Across four waves of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), 6,986 participants who were in grades 7–12 completed questionnaires on various sociodemographic, criminological, and health metrics. Results indicate that children with incarcerated parents are prone to depression, and the more often a parent has been incarcerated, the higher the level of depression for the child. Moreover, the more times a parent was incarcerated, the more likely other adversities are present. The school context provides a unique lens to explore the relationship between parental incarceration and depression. Inadequate school resources amplified the negative effects of parental incarceration on mental health. Taken together, the results of this study underscore how parental incarceration is a distinctly harmful childhood experience, and this work expands previous findings that experiencing parental incarceration during childhood has long-term, generational consequences to mental health.

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This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgement is given to Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis. The authors would also like to acknowledge Samantha Brooks, Mansi Patel, and Rajesh Satpathy for their work on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Antwan Jones.

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No funding was received to assist with the preparation of this manuscript. Authors declare they have no financial interests. All authors certify that they have no affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest or non-financial interest in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

Research involving Human Participants and/or Animals

The study was approved by the institutional review board at The George Washington University, and IRB certifies that the study was performed in accordance with the ethical standards as laid down in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Jones, A., Buntman, F., Ishizawa, H. et al. The Mental Health Consequences of Parental Incarceration: Evidence from a Nationally Representative Longitudinal Study of Adolescents through Adulthood in the United States. Am J Crim Just 49, 1–24 (2024).

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