Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), p. 3
We’ve all read at least one newspaper article where the commission of a horrendous crime has been linked to someone’s mental state. But how often have we read one where the victim’s mental state led to them being targeted for crime? The reality is people with mental illness and/or addictions are much more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators. And yet, media of all types continue to sensationalize certain situations and generate the typical calls for better services, better care, better response. These calls have very little staying power, however, because the stereotypes generated from the reporting feed into two widely held social beliefs: one that persons with mental illness and or addictions are not responsible for their actions (ever); and two, that persons with mental illness and or addictions are dangerous.
Dangerousness and criminality are intricately linked in the perceptions of the general public as is evidenced in some of the articles in this issue. Crime is a serious matter but when mental illness becomes the rationale for assuming dangerousness, the criminal justice system becomes a predominant mechanism for dealing with health issues. One only needs to look at the prevalence of mental illness in our prisons—or even more disturbingly in the prisons of our neighbour to the south—to realize that we have replaced one institution (the asylum) for another (the prison) without addressing the failure of governments to adequately fund social systems working with persons with mental illness. Crime is a symptom of an inadequate social and health systems, not of mental illness.
This issue of Visions attempts to address some of the issues for persons involved with the criminal justice system. There are some glaring gaps however. While people of First Nations descent make up 5% of the Canadian population, they make up 34% of the prison population. We were unable to secure an article addressing mental health issues in the incarcerated aboriginal population and for this I apologize in advance. Issues for women and persons of different ethnic backgrounds are not separated out from the main issue of the criminalization of mental illness and addictions, but the criminal system has definitely been criticized for its biases from gender, class, race, and disability perspectives. This issue is only the beginning of conversations that, I hope, last longer than the horror of yet more sensational coverage of the effects of social failure for persons with mental illness.
About the Author
Christina is Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mid-Island Branch. She has an MEd in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies and is working towards her doctorate in Policy and Practice in the Faculty of Human and Social Development at the University of Victoria