Mental Illness Awareness Week Brings Attention to the Need for Treatment Courts

Why Care? Mental Illness Awareness Week

The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) Mental Illness Awareness Week runs from October 6th through the 12th. This topic has not only started to get more attention in the last few months but remains a critical issue in need of effective solutions. For those incarcerated or involved in the criminal justice system, assistance for mental illness is often overlooked and it’s even more true for individuals experiencing suicidal ideation.

In August, when alleged sexual offender Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell due to suicide by hanging, the news was met with surprise by many throughout the country – especially considering Epstein had been on suicide watch at the time of his death. Unfortunately, as research and news stories over the past few years have shown,[1] suicide rates in our nation’s detention facilities (both state and federal) have continued to rise.

Detention facilities, such as California’s prison system, appear unwilling or unable to stem the tide of suicide among those under their supervision. Indeed, according to a recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle, the suicide rate for people in California prisons has risen for the past four years and may continue to rise in 2019.[2] When these individuals do seek help from prison staff by indicating a desire to hurt themselves, a typical ‘treatment’ given is placement in isolation, while nude or with a ‘safety smock’ – a “sort of full-body oven mitt, intended to serve as a blanket, clothing, and a mattress all in one.”[3]

Those being held in our nation’s prisons are not the only segment of the population experiencing an increase in suicide rates, however. The suicide rate among American active duty military personnel has risen from 18.5 per 100,000 in 2014 to 24.8 per 100,00 in 2018.[4] As The Guardian reported, the importance of this issue was highlighted last month when three crew members of the USS George HW Bush committed suicide within one week of each other.[5]

As the United States military and federal/state detention facilities continue to address this important mental health issue, experiences like those described above highlight the continued need for an extensive network of treatment courts throughout the country.

Veterans Treatment Courts and Mental Health Courts offer critically important, community-based treatment to individuals that either may not typically have access to those services or that may be uninclined to use those services absent a court intervention.

It is so readily apparent from my experience providing on-site and off-site technical assistance to treatment courts over the years that, if given the opportunity and necessary support, individuals with a mental health illness (and often, a co-occurring substance use disorder) can successfully gain control of their illnesses through participation in a treatment court.

Though these programs are available to individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system, I believe they are an important step in destigmatizing mental illness and paving the way for an increase in mental health awareness and treatment within and without the criminal justice system.


[1] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/inmate-suicides-like-jeffrey-epsteins-are-increasing–and-predictable-senator-says/2019/08/30/e9169afe-cb55-11e9-a1fe-ca46e8d573c0_story.html

[2] See https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Suicides-in-California-prisons-rise-despite-14476023.php

[3] Ibid.

[4] See https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/27/us-military-suicides-surge-to-record-high-among-active-duty-troops?utm_term=Autofeed&CMP=twt_gu&utm_medium=&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1569589855

[5] Ibid.

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