It has long been known that the pathway through the criminal justice system for those who suffer from a mental illness is fraught with difficulty.
In a given year, 43.8 million adults in the U.S. experience some sort of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. From that, 10.2 million adults have co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders, and approximately 24 percent of state prisoners have “a recent history of mental health condition.”
“If someone has a broken arm, they go to a doctor,” said Jada Hector, an adjunct criminal justice instructor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Mental illness is a disease, but we, as a society, have not been looking at it like that. You should be able to seek treatment when needed.”
In their recently published book, “Criminal Justice and Mental Health,” Hector and fellow criminal justice professor Dr. David Khey explore key issues, like lack of support for justice-involved persons within jails and prisons; intervention designs; the medical needs of offenders; first responder awareness; and the overall destigmatization of the topic.
The textbook, which Hector and Khey will use to teach both undergraduate and graduate courses of a similar name, draws on the knowledge of professionals and academics working in related fields internationally, as well as the experience of service users. It also offers solution-focused responses to the ongoing problem.
Past courses offered at the University haven’t intensely focused on the topic, but Hector, who is also a licensed professional counselor, said after receiving some interest from students, she and Khey decided the next step would be to create a space where they could cultivate a conversation and break down the stigmas behind mental illness.
“Criminal justice students are often unaware of the reality that whether you’re going to be a police officer, a corrections officer, a case manager or even a lawyer, the odds of you encountering someone with a mental illness are inevitable,” Hector said.
During the writing process, the pair used the first run of the course as a trial for what — and how — specific areas needed to be addressed. Surprisingly, Hector said there was a distinct need to retrain the students’ thought processes to no longer seek “black or white” answers.
“One of the conversations we had earlier on was when you hear ‘mental illness,’ what does that look like? Almost always, it was a very severe mental illness, like schizophrenia, and it was almost always equated to violence, when in reality that’s such a small percentage.”
The volume presents solutions from around the world that are successfully addressing the needs of justice-involved persons.
In Finland, a country considered to be one of the happiest on the planet, prisons are built without walls to feel less confining to inmates.
A U.S.-based company, Dave’s Killer Bread, began after Dave Dahl was welcomed back to the family bakery after serving 15 years in prison. Now, approximately one in three of the more than 300 employee-partners at the company’s Milwaukie, Oregon bakery has a criminal background.
The Born This Way Foundation, founded by singer Lady Gaga, partnered with Great Britain’s royal family to destigmatize mental health challenges.
“In the end, we are trying to make the topic more relatable to students,” Hector said. “It’s about starting a conversation, informing people and inspiring change.”