Good morning and Happy Wednesday! We’re going to keep on rolling through #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek with a topic that I’m very familiar with: Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System.

You know, you hear a lot in the news about mental health causing violent or criminal behaviour. However, did you know that Mental Health is NOT considered a risk factor by Criminal Justice professionals when it comes to determining someone’s overall risk to reoffend? It’s not, and I’ll tell you why.

We in the business of predicting risk look at what we call, “The Big 8”, as outlined by James Bonta and Don Andrews: Previous Criminal Behaviour (this is #1, folks!), Anti-social Peers, Anti-Social Personality, Antisocial Attitude, Family Relationships, Substance Abuse, Education & Employment, and Leisure/Recreational Activities. Nowhere in “The Big 8” does it state Mental Health as a risk need.

HOWEVER, Mental Health is what we call a “Responsivity” factor. That is, a mental disorder does not necessarily cause one to commit crime or acts of violence. But if a mental disorder is identified through assessment, this needs to be addressed before, and in conjunction with the treatment we utilize to address the real risk factors to criminal behaviour.

For example: Someone with schizophrenia is not necessarily predisposed to become violent. However, someone with Schizophrenia with some identified risk factors (let’s say for argument’s sake, they have a drinking problem, hang out with negative peers, have no positive family relationships, and have a more impulsive personality) commits a crime. It wasn’t the schizophrenia that caused them to become criminally involved necessarily. It was the other contributing factors. But when that person is sentenced or is looking at being sentenced, their diagnosis or suspected diagnosis needs to be identified and addressed (I.e., stabilized on appropriate medication) before the criminal risk factors can be targeted.

Failure to stabilize an individual before addressing criminal risk factors will likely result in an inability for that person to A. Be able to fully participate in their own rehabilitation, and B. Be able to avoid behaving criminally in the future.

Many of the individuals I worked with had various mental health conditions. Whether it was depression, anxiety, paranoid schizophrenia, narcissism, Dissociative Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, etc. And more often than not, their mental disorder did not cause them to make the decisions they did. But, many of my clients were attempting to self-medicate (using alcohol, crack, heroin, meth) instead of taking prescribed medication to manage their disorder’s symptoms. Or, as a vulnerable and perhaps an easily influenced individual, they were hanging out with some rough people. And much of the time these people were under the influence or completely intoxicated when they committed their crimes.

Mental Health while in a Correctional facility setting can be heartbreaking. Most of the correctional facilities aren’t equipped to manage the behaviours of someone in the throes of disorder’s symptoms. Wait times to see a physician while in custody are terribly long, the corrections workers are often undertrained and inexperienced to deal with mental health, and the environment itself is not conducive to getting and remaining healthy.

Then there is the social stigma around mental health. Sometimes half the battle between myself and my clients was trying to convince them that it’s not shameful to have a mental health disorder. That it’s not shameful or bad to take medication in order to manage it.

And when a client is in crisis? I’ve been put on a telephone loop with different departments at mental health services. Especially at 5 pm and everyone wants to get home and they don’t want to “deal with” the person in crisis. I’ve felt frustrated and stressed while trying to access services for someone in crisis – and I wasn’t the one in crisis (though the endless loop of being sloughed off almost put me in crisis). We still have a long way to go to provide the appropriate supports and services for people that are struggling with mental health.

Finally, say we get someone’s mental health stabilized for a time but then something happens while they’re on Probation (old negative friends seek them out, they feel hopeless after multiple failed job interviews, pretty much any set back) and all of a sudden they’re off their meds. Or they feel better and they don’t think they need their medication anymore so they stop taking them. And so the symptoms return, and we’re back to square one. Mental health is such a complicated and frustrating piece of the puzzle when trying to reprogram someone to reduce their risk to reoffend.

Listen, I get it. It’s hard to have any sympathy or empathy for someone that’s caused harm to someone(s) and/or to society itself. Victims often get left behind and forgotten in the process of convicting and sentencing someone. And we need to get better at supporting our victims. But, the reason why I think it’s important for people to take a second to understand mental health in the Criminal Justice System is because if we as a society are unable to help these people, we’re just going to end up with more victims. And that’s a real tragedy.

What are your thoughts about mental health and the Criminal Justice System? Let me know in the comments!

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Posted by:Prairie Chick

Wife and a mother to two children living in the Canadian prairies. In constant pursuit of mental and physical health through diet, exercise and self-care.

2 replies on “Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

  1. Mental health is complex, I think. I can’t help feeling that a relationship withGod and the realization that as a Christian, we have a new mind, the mind of Christ. To quote a scripture We have not been given a spirit of fear but of love and a sound mind. Such a relationship would heal many of our mental problems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! Thank you for your thoughts! I have certainly seen religion and spirituality play a role in my clients’ rehabilitation and treatment (For my Indigenous clients, reconnecting with their spiritual connection to The Creator has proven to be profound for them). However, religion alone cannot address the complexities such as an imbalance in the brain’s chemicals such as dopamine, seratonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and the like (hence why I mention medication as sometimes, in cases such as Schizophrenia, the only way to manage the symptoms is through medication). Furthermore, I have also unfortunately seen religion be incredibly detrimental to someone’s healing because at times it’s been the source or trigger of some of their complex issues. Whether that was due to abuse they endured from family “in the name of God” or shame they were forced to feel due to stigmas in some religions’ positions on homosexuality.
      So yes, I totally agree – mental health is absolutely super complex!


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