Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

As May comes to an end, we want to continue the conversation surrounding mental health and behavioral issues to help to reduce the stigma. Even for people that do not suffer, mental wellbeing is an important factor in each and everyone’s lives.

If you or a loved one have made a journey through the dreaded criminal justice system, you may have first-hand knowledge of the effects that the criminal justice system can have on an individual’s mental health. If you have not, it is likely not difficult to imagine the stress and anxiety that follow an accusation of committing a crime.

Even if you have not committed a crime or are unaware that you are going to be accused of committing a crime, an encounter with the police can be traumatizing. Your heart rate spikes. Your palms are sweaty. Your mind starts to race through all the possible outcomes of the encounter. Now, imagine being handcuffed, taken to jail, spending the night in a cold cell with someone you do not know or trust. This is just the beginning of your journey through the criminal justice system. This experience is traumatizing for everyone who finds themselves in the unfortunate position of being accused of a crime. For someone with significant mental health issues, past trauma, or fear of law enforcement, this situation can be amplified.

To learn more about mental health and how people’s struggles may be exacerbated by the criminal justice system, members of our team took time to sit down with a new neighbor from Assessment Services and Kalm Therapy Group to discuss the effects of mental health on an individual who faces the criminal justice system as a defendant.

We began by discussing the Department of Corrections treatment of individuals with mental health issues. Per the Department of Correction’s website, the vision of the institution is “An Iowa With No More Victims” and their mission is “Creating Opportunities for Safer Communities.” (Depart. of Corrections). On the Department of Correction’s website, one can find a pie-chart image listing the Department’s strategic priorities. Unfortunately, noticeably absent from the priorities is the treatment of inmate mental health issues.

Why is this problematic? Per the Department of Corrections, 57% of those incarcerated have mental health diagnosis. Of that 57%, 33.2% of them have a serious mental illness. The IDOC defines serious mental health issues as “chronic and persistent mental illnesses…” including “schizophrenia, recurrent major depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, other chronic and recurrent psychosis, dementia and other organic disorders.”

The Department of Corrections recognizes: “Offenders with mental health diagnoses are more likely to return to prison.”  Of people that return to prison in 3 years, 40.7% of those are individuals with chronic mental health issues. Despite those astonishing factors and statistics, the State institution in charge of rehabilitating offenders mentions nothing in their mission plan about providing mental health services to those incarcerated.  It is clear that mental health services are not a priority and are severely lacking in our state corrections system.

What about services within the community for those who avoid prison?  Throughout our conversation with Kalm and Assessment Services, we identified some barriers in the availability of services for different people in the community. First and foremost, the unending struggle for people that do not have insurance or the means to obtain insurance coverage. We see it with clients, that are unable to get the medications or treatments needed and the consequences that can flow from untreated mental health issues. While Broadlawns and Eyerly Ball do provide services to individuals regardless of their insurance status, it is unreasonable to assume that two facilities in the central Iowa can provide the resources needed when so many Iowans are in need. Both Broadlawns and Eyerly Ball are overwhelmed and do not have the space needed to provide all Iowans who are in need of mental health treatment the proper care and attention. This is not something we at GRL can fix in the time being, however, it is something to keep in mind every time a client walks through our door.

So, after some frustrating statistics and situations, what can we do? What can we do to help be the change the stigma regarding mental health illness? It starts with referring our clients to companies that will put in the work to help someone work through things that happened long before they googled “Criminal Defense Attorney”.

Unfortunately, when an individual walks through the doors of GRL it is likely one of the worst days, weeks, months of their lives. So with that, they also bring in the baggage of their past that many have suppressed and left untreated. To combat this, we will strive to find references for our clients to professionals that not only provide treatment options for those clients who are in need, but also professionals that may help to provide ways and strategies to cope with the pain, hurt, and trauma associated with their journey through the criminal justice system.

As a society, we must be more aware of these issues. Police in central Iowa have access to the Mobile Crisis Units, that can provide assistance, when the scene is safe, to combat the potential for a situation to be elevated when dealing with someone who has significant mental health issues or when someone enters a state of crisis upon their presence. This must be utilized.

The Courts should also be more considerate of the fact that it can be nearly impossible for individuals to obtain the treatment they are in need of due to lack of resources in the community.

Lastly, the Department of Corrections needs to do a better job at not just pushing people through the system with their fingers crossed that the people they incarcerate will not return, but rather, help incarcerated individuals treat their underlying mental health issues and provide plans for their treatment after their release from their incarceration.

The people that we deal with are just that, people. They should be treated as such and should be provided the resources to be successful. That should come from every step of this journey. “An Iowa With No More Victims” cannot be achieved without an understanding of why people commit crimes and resources to help those who do. We have to do better.