Toward a more just judicial system

The first Mental Health and Law Conference will take place on March 30 at McGill to facilitate discussion and bring awareness to the links between two prominent fields of study: Law and psychology. The Thomson House event will host researchers from around Montreal who will facilitate a conversation on how lawmakers can reform Canada’s judicial system to better accommodate offenders suffering from mental illness.  

Lawyers often work for clients who suffer from mental health issues including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and addiction. Despite their illnesses, the Canadian judicial system often places these individuals in correctional facilities, rather than mental health institutions, and further compromise their mental health. Nina Fainman-Adelman, co-chair of the Mental Health and Law Conference, has found that those in both law and psychology are often frustrated by the lack of cooperation between the two fields.

“When some lawyers work with clients who have mental health issues, sometimes they are not properly trained to deal with those types of situations,” Fainman-Adelman said. “On the other hand, a lot of psychologists are called into courtrooms to testify, but they don’t understand how the legal system works.”

Access to a trained psychologist would help lawyers understand the reasons behind their clients’ crimes. Research suggests that those living with certain mental health conditions are more likely to engage in violent and criminal behaviour. In United States prisons, nearly half of the inmates who died by suicide suffered from serious mental illnesses and were refused necessary care and support.

In Canada, many mentally-ill inmates are held in high security prisons, including solitary confinement. Studies show that sentences are generally longer for mentally-ill inmates than for non-mentally-ill ones; the former often find it difficult to comply with facility rules. The conference’s organizers hope to shed light on the mistreatment of the most vulnerable individuals. Researchers have found that more minority-identifying individuals are placed into prison systems instead of mental health facilities, further illustrating a need for psychologists to take on a more active role in the judicial system.

The link between the two disciplines has gone largely ignored in popular discourse, and, in turn, the conference hopes to underscore how society can more accurately portray the experiences of mentally-ill defendants.

Media reporting is often a direct cause of public misconceptions surrounding the intersection of mental health and law. Nowadays, media coverage of high-profile trials often presents these issues as black-and-white cases, leaving little room for nuanced debate.

Currently, in Canada, the recent development of mental health courts, which adapt to accommodate the psychological health of the defendant, has received an abundance of media coverage debating the pros and cons of this alternative judicial process. Fainman-Adelman described the destructive potential of one-sided media coverage, as the public does not receive the necessary information to create a nuanced, informed opinion. According to the organizer, the media coverage would benefit from acknowledging the overlap of the two issues and educating society in the process.

“Our goal in this conference is to present a range of opinions and perspectives,” Fainman-Adelman said. “We hope to try and get people to think about these topics more critically and recognize that it is always a grey area.”

Those studying the relationship between the two fields hope that the legal community can use its resources to assist individuals who otherwise would not have been diagnosed. For some inmates, courts offer their first access to mental health resources and should be a means to receive support.

The Mental Health and Law Conference will reinforce the interconnection of the two fields and emphasize the need for support through their keynote speakers, panel discussions, and volunteers from McGill’s Peer Support Centre. Arianne Kent, co-chair for the event, hopes that these resources will lead individuals to continue to explore this topic and create networks between the two fields of study on and off campus.

“There is so much to unpack, and we hope the conference encourages and inspires people to explore it further,” Kent said.

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