Research proves that there is a clear relationship between mental health and offending, with up to 90% of prisoners in the UK having a diagnosable mental illness. This highlights the fact that people with mental health problems are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
So, ‘why is this?’, you might be wondering…
Well, the reason is largely due to certain psychiatric conditions increasing a person’s risk of being the perpetrator of crime. One example of a psychiatric condition that increases the likelihood of offending can be seen in schizophrenia, a mental illness that, often, causes the sufferer to experience paranoid delusions and command hallucinations- these being ‘voices’ that order the sufferer to commit certain actions, of which many are violent in nature.
As well as the symptoms of mental health problems increasing the risk of offending in those diagnosed with mental ill health, as described above, other comorbidities that often go alongside mental health problems can also pose an increased risk. For example, someone with a mental health problem might abuse substances in search of a form of ‘escapism.’ This could, however, lead to offending taking place, as drinking excessive units of alcohol and/or taking illegal drugs can, and often does, lead to crime.
Furthermore, other indirect effects of mental health problems such as unemployment and homelessness also serve to increase the risk of offending (e.g., someone with a mental health problem who is unable to work and risks losing their home might resort to crime as they believe it to be the only option left for them to ‘get by.’)
In the event of a crime being committed for a reason such as that which was referenced above (believing that it is their ‘only option’), the offender might not appreciate the seriousness of what they have done, or even acknowledge that it was an offence. Instead, they might view it as simply being a ‘necessity.’
How the CJS affects people with mental health problems…
The highly stressful nature of being in a criminal justice environment can have an adverse effect on anyone, let alone someone with a mental health problem (that being 39% of people detained in police custody.)
People with pre-existing mental health problems who do find themselves ‘caught up’ in the high-pressured criminal justice system are likely to experience an increase in their symptoms (e.g., anxiety.) This is because the widespread lack of support for individuals with complex mental health problems, combined with the lack of mental health training custodial staff receive, and the overall stressful nature of custody, means that, often, the mental health needs of vulnerable offenders is overlooked, hence why their mental health problems often exacerbate in custody. This can impact upon their ability to process information and can lead to them struggling to understand why they are in custody/what it is they have done wrong.
The above dilemma- offenders being unable to understand the situation they find themselves in- can cause feelings of agitation and distress to arise, emotions which could, again, impact upon their ability to listen to, process, and respond to the information that is being given to them.
Another factor that can negatively impact upon a person’s state of mind in custody is the, extremely wrongful, stereotyping from custodial staff that might occur. People known to be experiencing mental health problems might be discriminated against by, for example, not being listened to or believed, purely and simply because they have a mental illness. Facing discrimination in this way could lead to a sense of great distress being felt and, in extreme cases, it could even lead to those effected attempting suicide, in a final attempt to escape the mental torment that being in custody has subjected them to.
To avoid being discriminated against, offenders with mental health problems might be reluctant to admit that they have a mental health problem due to the stigma that still exists surrounding mental ill health. It is therefore essential that people working within the criminal justice system know the signs to look out for in people who might be mentally ill, as this will ensure that they are offered an appropriate level of support during their time in custody. Failure to provide appropriate support and intervention would increase the risk of the individual reoffending and thus ending up back in custody in the future.
To ensure that any offender with a mental health problem is in receipt of adequate support whilst in custody, custodial staff must provide them with the contact details of, and subsequent access to, a ‘mental health advocate’- an independent person who can speak on their behalf, as well as access to mental health professionals such as counsellors and therapists. Staff must also ensure that they hold an indiscriminatory attitude towards all offenders, whether they have a mental health problem, or not.
By taking the steps listed above, people with mental health problems will be less likely to see their state of mind worsening during their time in custody, and more likely to gain access to the support they need- support that will allow them to get back to living a productive, (and law-abiding), life.