Use of the Westerman Aboriginal Symptoms Checklist - Youth (WASC-Y) to screen for mental health problems in Indigenous youth in custody


The primary aim of this study was to screen for mental health problems in Australian Indigenous young people in a youth detention centre using the Westerman Aboriginal Symptoms Checklist - Youth (WASC-Y).

Over the study period, all Indigenous young people admitted into custody were referred for screening with the WASC-Y, a culturally validated five-scaled instrument developed to identify Indigenous young people at risk for a range of mental health or substance abuse problems. The WASC-Y also incorporates a separate scale for cultural resilience.

High levels of mental health and substance abuse problems were reported, with 94.6% of males and 100% of females surveyed screening above the designated clinical cut-off on at least one scale. Based on moderate/medium levels of risk, 27.7% screened positive for depression, 34.0% for suicide ideation or intent, 89.4% for substance use, 36.2% for impulsivity, and 68.1% for symptoms of anxiety. Females screened higher than males across all five subscales, though differences reached statistical significance only for suicidal ideation or intent. Cultural resilience as a protective factor for mental health problems (excluding substance abuse) approached clinical significance.

Given their pervasively high levels of psychological distress, it is recommended that on admission into custody all Indigenous youth are referred for a mental health assessment and substance abuse counselling. It is important to assess for culturally resiliency or other strengths that may be protective against mental health problems.


Stephen Leslie Stathis
Child and Family Therapy Unit, Child & Family Therapy Unit, Royal Childrens Hospital, Herston QLD

Ivan Doolan
Mental Health Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs Service, Fortitude Valley QLD

Paul Letters
Mental Health Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs Service, Fortitude Valley QLD

Amanda Arnett
Royal Children’s Hospital, Child and Family Therapy Unit, Herston QLD

Storm Cory
Royal Children’s Hospital, Child and Family Therapy Unit, Herston QLD

Laura Quinlan
Royal Children’s Hospital, Child and Family Therapy Unit, Herston QLD


Bickel, R., & Campbell, A. (2002). Mental health of adolescents in custody: The use of the 'Adolescent Psychopathology Scale' in a Tasmanian context. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36, 603-609.

Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian. (2009). Snapshot 2009: Children and young people in Queensland. Brisbane, QLD: Author.

Fourth National Mental Health Plan. (2009). An agenda for collaborative government action in mental health 2009-2014. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Golzari, M., Hunt, S. J., & Anoshiravani, A. (2006). The health status of youth in juvenile detention facilities. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38, 776-782.

Grisso, T., Barnum, R., Fletcher, K. E., Cauffman, E., & Peuschold, D. (2001). Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument for mental health needs of juvenile justice youths. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 541-548.

Indig, D., Vecchiato, C., Haysom, L., Beilby, R., Carter, J., Champion, U., et al. (2011). 2009 NSW young people in custody health survey: Full report. Sydney, NSW: Justice Health and Juvenile Justice.

Letters, P., & Stathis, S. L. (2004). A mental health and substance abuse service for a youth detention centre. Australasian Psychiatry, 2, 126-129.

Memmot, P., Stacy, R., Chambers, C., & Keys, C. (2000). Violence in Indigenous communities. Canberra, ACT: Crime Prevention Branch, Attorney General's Department.

Rutter, M. (2006). Implications of resilience concepts for scientific understanding. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1094, 1-12.

Sawyer, M. G., Guidolin, M., Schulz, K. L., McGinnes, B., Zubrick, S. R., & Baghurst, P. A. (2010). The mental health and wellbeing of adolescents on remand in Australia. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 551-559.

Stathis, S. L., Letters, P., Doolan, I., Fleming, R., Heath, K., Arnett, A., et al. (2008). Use of the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument to assess for mental health problems in youth people within an Australian youth detention centre. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 44(7-8), 438-434.

Taylor, N. (2007). Juveniles in detention in Australia, 1981-2006 (Technical and Background Paper no. 26). Canberra, ACT: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Westerman, T. (2004). Engagement of Indigenous clients in mental health services: What role do cultural differences play? Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health [Advances in Mental Health], 3(3), 3, 1-7.

Westerman, T. G. (2000). The development of a comprehensive assessment process for Aboriginal youth (aged 13 to 17) at risk of depression, suicidal behaviours and anxiety. In The Westerman Aboriginal symptoms checklist for youth manual. Perth, WA: Indigenous Psychological Services.


Westerman; WASC-Y; Indigenous; youth; custody; mental health


PP: 235 - 239

RSS Facebook Twitter

Sign Me Up for latest release updates

*  Email Address:
    First Name:
    Last Name:
*  I am interested in:


Call for Papers

Children of Parents with Mental Illness
Volume 13/2
Deadline: 1st Feb 2015

Indigenous Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
Volume 14/1
Deadline: 1st Jun 2015

Special Issues

Physical Health and Mental Health
Volume /

Minds Matter
Volume /

Substance Use and Mental Health
Volume 11/1
Summary | Contents

Promoting Youth Mental Health through Early Intervention
Volume 10/1
Summary | Contents

Migration and Mental Health
Volume 9/3
Summary | Contents

Families where a Parent has a Mental Illness
Volume 8/3
Summary | Contents

Emotional and Behavioural Problems in Children and Adolescents
Volume 7/1
Summary | Contents

Multicultural Mental Health
Volume 5/2
Summary | Contents

Indigenous Mental Health
Volume 3/3
Summary | Contents

Volume 2/3
Summary | Contents - The citation linking backbone

Website by Fig Creative Sunshine Coast Website Design