Mental Illness Awareness in the Courts

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The Code of Judicial Conduct makes it clear that being a judge is not easy. Adding a new area to jurisprudence will not be easy. However, an accurate understanding of mental illnesses – and how these common brain illnesses affect human thoughts, judgment, and behaviors – is necessary if we are to strive to have “justice for all” the over 1.7 million Floridians [one in every ten citizens] who have one or more of the illnesses known as depression, manic-depression [bipolar disorder], schizophrenia, and the anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Upholding integrity, avoiding impropriety, maintaining judicial impartiality, improving the legal system and the administration of justice, and minimizing the risk of conflict with judicial duties and personal behaviors which are inappropriate for a jurist, are vital components of being a judge.

A judge shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice. A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by word or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, and shall not permit staff, court officials, and other subject to the judge’s direction and control to do so. [Emphasis added] The “disability” of concern in this article is mental illness.

Judges are selected for their good judgment, character, and fairness. What if a person’s judgment and opinions are based on misinformation and misunderstanding? Many in our legal profession have no training about brain illnesses. As a result, many harbor the same misunderstandings and misinformation that are believed in the general public concerning those whom the public considers to be mentally ill. Many base their opinions on their exposure to a single individual, and may not have an accurate picture of the medical condition as a whole.

There is so much stigma and discrimination toward those labeled “mentally ill,” that those who are aware of their need for medical help in this area, often refuse to seek it. They fear repercussions in the workplace, and even within their own families. Even a close, personal friend or colleague of a judge or a lawyer would rarely disclose a diagnosis such as manic-depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder for fear of losing the respect and trust of that legal professional.

A 1991 Johns Hopkins medical study found that of thousands of professionals surveyed, lawyers ranked number one in having depression, a common – yet deadly if it progresses to suicidemental illness. The North Carolina Bar was the first to start a mentoring program after a shocking number of attorney suicides.

How many lawyers or judges do you know that talk freely about their treatment for mental illnesses? A top Florida Bar staff member told me that there could be no committee, commission, section, or staff members working to promote “mental illness awareness” as the new Florida Bar continuing legal education course, even though in February of 2001, this subject was placed by the Florida Supreme Court in the MANDATORY category. The staff person said that forming such a group would create a presumption that the individuals affiliated were personally “mental patients.” It was thought that no one would risk that presumption or actual disclosure.

So, we lawyers are #1 at having depression, a common “stress triggered” brain illness. We are the profession that works to end discrimination. But no Florida Bar legal group is willing to promote the removal of the discrimination by teaching the truth and an accurate portrayal of brain illnesses. Why? Bar members too greatly FEAR discrimination against themselves, personally. No one is tracking the number of lawyers who have had a course in mental illness awareness or how many areas are offering such courses. No one seems to be actively promoting this area of jurisprudence. Help is needed.

Going back to the search for upholding integrity, avoiding impropriety, maintaining judicial impartiality, improving the legal system and the administration of justice, and minimizing the risk of conflict with judicial duties and personal behaviors which are inappropriate for a jurist – so where exactly does the promotion of JUSTICE for the mentally ill lawyer, judge, and client fit into this view?

Consider the plight of those over 1.7 million mentally disabled Floridians when they need a lawyer. Even revealing a mental diagnosis might cause the client to face immediate disrespect and condescension from an uneducated attorney. For years, psychiatry and mental patients have been ridiculed on late-night monologues. Inaccurate media portrayals, and those mentioning only the most severe and unmedicated mental patients, have painted inaccurate pictures of violence, “craziness,” and chronic instability. This has resulted in further discrimination by employers, insurance companies, and even many faith leaders. When mental illness is mentioned, many of the kindest individuals automatically try to make a joke, to ease their discomfort concerning this topic. Many people used to joke about people of color – or those of different religious beliefs. Education can end the persecution – and restore dignity and fairness to over 27 million Americans who have these common brain illnesses. Help is needed.

Negative headlines and news stories concerning violence or murder often refer to a mental illness. When a famous, accomplished person who has a mental disorder does something praiseworthy and significant, the diagnosis is excluded from the headline and the article. Our journalists consider that they are protecting the privacy of this person, and hiding their shameful secret. This type of one-sided reporting actually perpetuates shame and causes our society to remain unaware of the many accomplished people who function well and recover, despite a diagnosis of mental illness. Many more will recover, instead of ending up in jails, when citizens promptly recognize symptoms, are able to find proper medical care, and without shame, continue on medications as needed to stabilize the brain chemistry and promote wellness.

Our children, their lawyer, and their judges, have not learned in the classroom that brains can get sick, too. They learn that a person can be born with healthy eyes, healthy teeth, and a healthy heart and then one day have medical problems. They learn that for an eye problem, an opthamologist is the proper doctor. Wearing glasses or contacts is accepted as a normal part of life. children learn much in early grades about dental hygiene and have no shame in seeing a dentist. They learn that the heart can have an episode of illness such as high blood pressure or a heart attack. They learn that with the help of a cardiologist, the heart can become healthy again, and that daily medication may be needed to keep the heart well. There is no fear or shame in taking heart medication.

Discrimination begins when our young children do NOT learn that they can be born with a healthy brain, but then one day have an episode of a brain problem – like an episode of depression or a panic attack. They do not learn that the brain doctor is called a psychiatrist. A major cause of the shame and problems with psychotropic medication compliance is that the children do not learn that after an episode of a common brain problem, the brain doctor – like the cardiologist – uses daily medication to stabilize the brain and to keep it healthy and well. When our children learn in school that brain illnesses are as common and as treatable as heart illnesses, our nation can achieve the potential of the 80 percent recover rate. With education and understanding, the ill child or adult can quickly recognize symptoms and seek prompt and proper medical help.

Millions of Americans are entering the legal system with problems directly related to untreated mental illnesses. These include: possession charges due to “self-medication” of the brain illness with substance abuse; manic rages resulting in domestic and other violence; a majority of the juvenile justice charges; and even manic spending sprees which have resulted in bankruptcy. The mentally ill person’s lawyers and judge are frequently uninformed about the significant overlapping of brain illness symptoms and the legal issues and facts that are presented in the case. Though there is no intent to deal unfairly with the client, this lack of understanding brings injustice. The mentally ill person with an uneducated advocate is left feeling “defenseless and oppressed,” despite the Florida Bar oath of admission.

Discrimination caused by misunderstanding and misinformation is the problem. Education is the solution. A simple one or two hour overview of brain illnesses will greatly remove the myths and stereotypes enabling the bench and bar to do much to restore health, safety, and wealth to our state. This matter is urgent. suicides and murder-suicides are preventable. So are many DUI fatalities, if we can teach people how the brain chemical “dopamine,” which is increased by abused substances, is tied to “self-medicating” weeks of feeling crummy due to an ill brain. Brain illness education can help decrease the economic burden of law enforcement and incarceration by restoring healthy, employed taxpayers, living in stable marriages. These stable marriages prevent those stress triggers and will help our young people escape those early cycles of brain illness. Many more will then achieve in schools, instead of heading to our courts and to juvenile detention. A new world? Perhaps. Justice demands that we try. Education.

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