Spring 2023

Looking out for the most vulnerable

Medical School researchers illuminate the effects of parental incarceration and foster care on kids’ mental health


Mental health and well-being is a growing concern for kids everywhere. In fact, the number of children diagnosed with anxiety or depression increased by nearly 30% between 2016 and 2020.

But for a specific group of children and adolescents—those who have experienced parental incarceration and foster care—the risk of mental illness is especially acute. University of Minnesota Medical School researchers recently examined the experiences of Minnesota youth with exposure to both systems in an effort to better understand this often-overlooked group of children.

“Previous research into the impact of these systems has been siloed; we wanted to look at the crossroads of those experiences given the numerous ways in which they can be linked,” says Luke Muentner, Ph.D., M.S.W., a postdoctoral research associate at the Medical School. “We found that youth who experienced both systems saw the most adverse mental health concerns relative to those involved in one or neither system.”

The research also showed that a disproportionate number of children in this group were identified as youth of color, were experiencing poverty, or were living in a rural community. Based on their findings, Muentner and his team developed recommendations to help boost the mental health of kids experiencing both systems. 

Those recommendations include increasing screening for anxiety and depressive symptoms and expanding access to culturally relevant, evidence-based therapeutic programs.

Ultimately, Muentner says, kids and adolescents are resilient; they just need some help from those around them. He says family, school, or community support could help mitigate their risk. 

“We want to be cognizant and critical of how we talk about these health risks, and pair them with a set of protective factors,” he says. “It’s important to view impacted youth as multidimensional people who have strength and resilience and are able to overcome some of these adversities.”