Where Mental Health and Criminal Justice Collide: Part One

[caption id="attachment_4469" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Image Credit: Victor via https://www.flickr.com/photos/v1ctor/8325573561/ Image Credit: Victor via https://www.flickr.com/photos/v1ctor/8325573561/[/caption] The struggle between caring for those with mental health issues and preserving law and order can often leave families and law enforcement treading a fine line. While this difficult dilemma has long been an issue for those involved in the mental health care, criminal justice, and law enforcement fields, it wasn't until 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, walked into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 20 schoolchildren and 6 adult school employees that the greater public became aware of just how difficult it can be for family members to get appropriate mental health care for their loved ones--and just how deadly the consequences may be. But the stakes are high not only for innocent bystanders, but also for those who suffer from mental health issues and who are crying out for help. Last month, a 17-year-old girl walked into a police station armed with a knife in her pocket and the words, "I have a gun," written on her hand. The resulting altercation ended when police shot and killed the teenager. The girl's aunt called her niece's actions a cry for help. She said the girl had been diagnosed with both depression and bipolar disorder and was seeking treatment and taking medication for her illnesses. She questions why grown men--law enforcement officers--were unable to de-escalate the situation without resulting to lethal force. A Yahoo! News story calls the death of Kristiana Coignard "as tragic as it is tragically unexceptional." A year ago, police were called to help with an 18-year-old teen diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. Keith Vidal was holding a screwdriver and refused to put it down. His family says he never threatened anyone with it, but because of his mental health issues, they were afraid he might harm himself. Vidal's family says that the first officer to arrive on the scene had dealt with Keith before, and was patient and calm in speaking with the teen. Then a sheriff's deputy showed up, and the teen's family said she also was patient with their son. As the first two law enforcement officers spoke with the boy, he began to calm down. However, a third officer showed up and tased the 90-pound teen when he refused to drop the screwdriver. Family members say that two officers and the boy's mother were holding the tased teen on the ground when the third officer walked up, said, "We don't have time for this," and fatally shot the teen. And right here in Oklahoma, police were called to help with Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, an 18-year-old who had been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder and other mental health issues. The teen went into a rage and became destructive when he thought his girlfriend was breaking up with him. Custer County Sheriff's deputies entered the home, shooting and killing Goodblanket. Family members say deputies were in the home for mere seconds before Goodblanket was shot and killed. They say deputies didn't even attempt to reason with the teen before killing him. Clearly, law enforcement officers put their lives on the line when dealing with violent people, including those with mental health issues who have become enraged or unreasonable. Still, in some situations law enforcement seems too quick to react with lethal force. Clearly, there is a need for sufficient  mental health resources in order to reduce the frequency of police encounters with mentally ill people, and there is a need for adequate training to allow law enforcement to interact appropriately with the mentally ill. These violent episodes highlight the rift between mental health care and law enforcement, but the need goes far beyond police encounters. Every day, the clash between mental health and criminal justice plays out in courtrooms and jails across the nation. In our next article in this series, we'll look at the link between mental health and substance abuse to see the implications for criminal justice in Oklahoma.

Comments