Monday, 2 March 2009

Youth Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

Mental disorders collectively constitute the largest burden of disease in young people. They have substantial negative short- and long-term outcomes across many domains, yet early identification and effective intervention can improve outcomes and can often lead to recovery. Unfortunately, many young people do not receive the mental health care they require and may consequently enter the justice system. Studies of incarcerated youths show that up to 70% of them have mental disorders. Many of these youth receive primarily custodial care. A variety of social, legal and medical interventions can and should be implemented to ensure that young people suffering from mental disorders do not inappropriately enter the justice system due to lack of access to health care and other services.

While the exact number is unknown, it has been estimated that as many as half of the incarcerated population suffers from mental illness(es), a substance abuse problem, and/or a learning disability. Because of a shortage of services and a lack of understanding by society, the mentally ill are not receiving the care they require and instead are being criminalized by being sent to prisons. Supreme Court Justice Beverly McLaughlin in a statement in on March 8th, 2007 stated that “Such people are not true criminals, not real wrong-doers in the traditional sense of those words. They become involved with the law because they are mentally ill, addicted or both.”

Similarly, many police officers believe that mentally ill perpetrators represent a disproportionate number of individuals incarcerated for minor crimes. Some family members have noted that crimes may be committed or encouraged to be committed in order for the mentally ill person to be arrested. This may represent a “faint hope” that arrest will lead to treatment which for a variety of different reasons is not otherwise available.

Last week Hon. Judge Michael McKee produced a report calling for 80 recommendations to patch up the cracks in New Brunswick's mental health system.

"The stigmatization of the mentally ill, the criminalization of the mentally ill in our court system and the silos of government not working together, that's something that's gone on for essentially decades and it has to be fixed," Murphy said.

We need to move away from the common misconception that locking someone up and throwing away the key is an appropriate manner by which to address mental health problems in our society. Mental illness and addiction are health issues and are not effectively dealt with by the criminal justice system.

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