Mental health is a minefield. While society has become more understanding of such problems, there’s still a long way to go. Those suffering from issues experience discrimination at work, and stigma on the streets. And, that’s just their day to day lives.
When someone suffering from a mental condition comes into contact with the law, things are even more complex. The risk of individuals with mental conditions are exaggerated, but there’s no denying such conditions can lead to violent behavior. During a psychotic break, a person may lose touch with reality. Thus, they may commit crimes they would never usually consider.
It’s easy to see why issues like these are a problem for the law. On the one hand, our legal system operates to keep our streets safe. On the other, it’s unfair to punish someone for a crime they played no conscious part in committing. In an attempt to get around the issue, prisoners face psychological testing before sentencing. If a problem is detected, they face a period in a psychiatric unit, rather than a prison. Seems fair, right?
Perhaps, but the system isn’t without its flaws. Many individuals slip through the net. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s simply not possible to recognize such issues in a short amount of time. In other cases, prisoners hide the truth through fear of psychiatric wards. Again, we can thank stigma. The idea of containment with other violent sufferers can often seem overwhelming.
And, there’s the issue of conditions being treated as criminal, rather than mental. The most obvious example would be addiction. Drug users are treated as criminals and often receive the harshest sentences. Yet many, such as UK comedian and ex-user Russell Brand, argue that this issue is a mental one. And, there’s no denying the evidence to support the argument. On the plus side, some defense companies help those arrested for drugs with this in mind. But, the legal system has yet to change its view on the issue.
Things could also improve with regards to the information given to prisoners. Many don’t know their rights with mental health. In fact, all new prisoners are treated alike. And, despite the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ motto, treatment isn’t always positive. As such, someone with mental illness may have traumatic experiences before justice is served. Even if they then go on to receive treatment, this can cause undue distress.
It’s also worth mentioning the ever present risk of wrongful conviction. Mental health sufferers may act guilty, even if they aren’t. As such, an innocent individual could face trouble, purely because of their illness. Scattered thoughts, erratic actions, and a lack of eye contact all suggest guilt. They’re also part and parcel of mental illness.
As you can see, the law still has a long way to go. If you or anyone you know is convicted with mental illness, make sure to educate yourselves. Know your rights to ensure the law doesn’t take advantage of your condition.