Victimization of People with Mental Illness

Barriers to Reporting Crime

Liz McBratney

Reprinted from "Trauma and Victimization" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (3), pp. 8-9

The criminal court system has provided me with a great deal of experience assisting mental health consumers who are charged with criminal offences. I have also had many clients with mental illness who have suffered violence and discrimination at the hands of others.

People with mental illness frequently become vulnerable and easy targets of physical and mental abuses. This is particularly evident on the streets in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Many of these incidents don’t get reported for a variety of reasons. A multitude of barriers come in to play, including discrimination, accessibility, fear of retaliation and the potentially intimidating court process.

Discrimination

Stigma and discrimination are common barriers to reporting crime. Many victims with mental disorders fear they are perceived as not being credible because they suffer from delusions. They fear this is thought to impair their ability to recount events accurately.

Victims often suffer from shock, confusion, anger, humiliation and guilt, which can be intensified by a mental health condition. An interviewer may feel that a victim who is experiencing these symptoms is exaggerating details. Filtering what is fact and what is fiction is difficult, and the court has to ensure that witnesses are reliable.

It is my experience, in working with individuals in the courts who have past experience with abuse and violence, that they tend not to trust that the system will work in their favour. As a result, these victims are less likely to rely on the court system to fight their battles.

Accessing support

Once a crime has been reported, it can take a significant amount of time and energy for the victim to follow through with all the follow-up requirements. Required practical tasks, such as filling in victim impact statement forms and providing medical information, also create barriers to accessing support in the criminal justice system.

Forms require an individual to have an address or contact number for follow-up, as well as a certain level of literacy. Also, these documents can be invasive and may require information and documentation from a physician.

Medical examinations can be included as part evidence for charge approval. But many mental health consumers don’t want to seek medical attention, because they’ve had negative experiences involving hospital certifications or clinical care.

There is little support available to help people maintain mental health and self-care throughout the court process. More often, they need to access community mental health care through their physician or mental health team.

In my capacity as a mental health court worker with the Motivation, Power and Achievement Society (MPA), I have assisted people who have been victims by accompanying them to court or by helping them file documents, as per a judge’s requests. This role ought to be performed by a government agency associated with court, or by a non-profit service contracted to provide victims services. However, funding to victim-related resources has been cut in recent years.

Fear of retaliation

A common barrier for victimized individuals when reporting offences is the fear of retaliation. Offenders may deliberately target people with mental illness because they see them as vulnerable and less likely to go to the police.

If street drugs play a part in the situation, the likelihood of someone reporting violations is further decreased. The individual may not want to disclose the fact that they have addiction issues. As well, they don’t want to be subject to further harmful violations.

Daunting court process

The court process itself is intimidating and anxiety producing. Anxiety and fear is further complicated by the fact that the person who has been victimized must once again see the accused in the law court. Also, the mentally ill person must deal with sheriffs and police in uniform, which can be difficult for those with negative past histories with authority, or delusions or paranoia related to authority systems.

As an advocate, I have also witnessed homeless people attempting to come into the building, but having nowhere to put their worldly possessions while attending court. This situation reduces the accessibility of the court process for these individuals.

It is important to recognize that all individuals, including those with mental illness, should be treated with respect and compassion while they cope with situations of violation. They should know that they are not alone.

Resources for assistance should be identified and made available to the victim. These may include women’s groups, in the case of spousal abuse; mental health teams, for counselling and treatment; the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association, to assist Aboriginal people; and the provincial government Victim Safety Unit, which attempts to contact victims when offenders will be released in the community. At MPA, we will assist, however we can, by providing additional referrals to appropriate community services.

 
About the author

Liz is a Court Services Supervisor and Advocate for the Motivation, Power and Achievement Society.

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