*The following post is an account of my experience with seeking a mental health defense. If you or someone else believes that they have a case of a mental health defense please seek legal advice.*
Every time a person commits a crime that people believe is out of the scope of a mentally well person, the comment sections of news sites are filled with comments about the person ‘getting away with it’ because they are mentally ill. Almost 8 years ago I committed a crime. A crime that is classified as a violent crime. I was mentally unwell, and yet I didn’t ‘get away’ with anything.
When I appeared before a magistrate at my first bail hearing I was refused bail because the police were worried about my safety and mental state. My lawyer didn’t oppose. I was remanded in custody for 2 months, which is a fancy way of saying that I spent two months in jail. Prisons are not really equipped to deal with mentally ill inmates. Their focus is generally punishment not treatment.
At my second bail hearing I was granted bail with very strict conditions. I was to continue to see my mental health treatment team, comply with mental health treatment as required and check into the local police station three times a week. If I broke any of these conditions I could face a return to prison until my court date. It would be another 14 months until that date.
Initially the lawyer that I had fought to have my case heard in front of the mental health tribunal. This tribunal would determine if I was of sound mind when I committed the crime. It does not determine if you were or are suffering from a mental illness, but rather whether or not that mental illness impacted on my ability to see that my actions were wrong.
If I was found to be not of sound mine at the time of the crime, I would be placed under a treatment order by the tribunal. This treatment order could have placed restrictions on my finances, consumption of alcohol, travel and treatment options. I could also be placed into a treatment facility until psychiatrists and the tribunal decided I was no longer a danger to myself or the community.
I have heard so many horror stories of these treatment orders being put in place and then not being amended to reflect the person’s improving mental health. People placed on a treatment order 20 years earlier are still having their lives restricted in the same way. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
In order to be seen by the mental health tribunal I had to have a mental health assessment by a forensic psychiatrist. I saw one who was supplied by the tribunal, the appointment lasted over an hour. My lawyer also organised for me to see a local forensic psychiatrist who submitted a report to the tribunal. A report from my regular treating psychiatrist was also supplied.
The report from the psychiatrist my lawyer employed said that he thought that I showed signs of schizophrenia, this was later amended after he read the other reports supplied. It was determined that while I was indeed suffering from a mental illness at the time I committed the crime, I was of sound mind in the legal sense.
Being declared of sound mind meant that my case was referred back to the criminal court system. When my court case came up for mention the first time, It had been around 13 months since I had received bail. I was still checking into the police station 3 times a week, rain, hail or shine.
When I was sentenced, my compliance with the bail conditions, letters of support from people who knew me and a desire from my victim to not see me convicted resulted in what might be seen as a lenient sentence. My mental illness was taken into account and I received 2 years probation with the proviso that I continue to engage in psychiatric care during that time.
Uninformed people who feel the need to spew their opinions on the comment sections of news websites and facebook pages would have you believe that someone being deemed of unsound mind is ‘getting away with it’. However that person still lives in their head, they still struggle with a mental illness and when they become well they will have to face the emotional consequences of their actions. We don’t need more broken people filling our prison cells.
Linking up with Jess for IBOT
It’s a tough call sometimes and there are plenty of lawyers who try to dodge round the system. And I guess it’s human nature to want revenge and to punish the perpetrator.
Honest and interesting post as always.
That said, jail must be awful for anyone, but especially for those already struggling and left without support.
There is so much ignorance around mental health and how the courts work as well. Our first instinct when someone does something unthinkable is to assume that they are not of sound mind because we can’t rationalise how a sane person could do something as awful as hurt their child or partner. But we have to realise mental wellness is a spectrum and sometimes being unwell makes a person not really responsible for their actions and other times it is simply a factor among many in what they’ve done. I try not to judge either way because in the media, you’re only ever getting part of the story. I think it’s super brave of you to share your story!
What an important post. What an eye opening post. One more step towards breaking down our ignorance when it comes to mental health. Hope you are ok xx
What a brave experience to share. I think a lot of people who comment on things like that are very ignorant keyboard warriors who wouldn’t even think to educate themselves. #TeamIBOT
It must be hard to go through; there are so many faults with the court system and jail. From a taxpayer POV, surely it’s better to rehabilitate than punish. And surely even with rehabilitation, the suspension of your freedom is punishment. But I know it’s an immensely complex issue.
One of my friends (a psychologist) worked on a project at one point which was about educating emergency workers re mental health issues. I think it was just ambulance teams from memory though, not police… but it sounds like it would be worth doing it!
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Tegan.
And the scary thing about those people commenting on social media is not just they they are uninformed, they just seem completely unwilling to even consider that these issues can be more complicated than they appear. So much black and white thinking.
Wow, thank you for sharing your unique perspective, Tegan. Our courts are an imperfect beast of a thing. Most people would have no idea about the processes involved when the justice system and mental illness collide and just assume the courts are ‘soft’. There is so much more involved than just the sentence.
Whiten eye opening post Tegan. Thanks for sharing openly and honestly about mental illness. Very difficult topic.
Thanks for sharing this Tegan. As always I learn something valuable from visiting you. You continue to be an inspiration to me and I’m sure you are a beacon of hope for others.
I honestly had no idea of what was involved in determining mental health and sound mind in legal matters. Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience x