Applied Psychology OPUS

System Justification and Mental Health Outcomes in Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth

Jacqueline Yi

Faculty Mentor | Dr. Shabnam Javdani

Doctoral Student Mentor | Corianna Sichel

The current study explores system justification and its potential associations with negative mental health outcomes in juvenile justice-involved girls and boys. System justification refers to a process through which individuals believe society to be fair and endorse a status quo in which they are disadvantaged. Extant literature has established that system-involved youth, and particularly girls, are disproportionately marginalized by the juvenile justice system and are at risk for a host of negative mental health outcomes. However, little is known about how these youth perceive the broader society in which they live, and the possible implications that these views may have for their mental health. The study examines the following four research questions: (1) To what extent do juvenile justice-involved youth hold system-justifying beliefs? (2) Are there significant differences in system justification between girls and boys? (3) Is system justification related to youth’s mental health outcomes, specifically depression and anxiety? (4) Does gender moderate the relationship between system justification and youth’s mental health outcomes? Participants included 83 boys and 86 girls, 12 to 16 years of age, residing in juvenile detention centers in NYC. Secondary data analysis was conducted on anonymized, de-identified, baseline self-report survey measures, completed by youth as part of an ongoing intervention evaluation.

Results indicated that juvenile justice-involved youth reported an average system justification score of 4.56 out of 9, boys were more likely than girls to endorse system-justifying beliefs, and the endorsement of system justification was protective of depressive/anxious symptoms for the whole sample. However, stronger endorsements of system justification were associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety for girls, but not for boys. The current study offers insight into how juvenile justice-involved youth, conventionally neglected in the literature, perceive social inequalities. As such, this study informs the development of therapeutic and psychoeducational interventions, supporting existing literature advocating for intervention approaches that incorporate sociopolitical development and increase critical consciousness among disadvantaged youth. Additionally, as a novel approach addressing the intrapsychic processes of system-involved youth, this study has implications for future directions in research, illuminating associations between system-justifying beliefs and mental health and suggesting possible pathways for further investigation.