May 2012-The Mental Health Commission of Canada recently released Canada's first national mental health strategy, called "Changing Directions, Changing Lives." Prior to this, Canada was the only G8 country without a mental health strategy. The Strategy has many proposals for improving the treatment of those people dealing with mental health issues. Among other things, the Strategy looks at the criminal justice system.
One of the priorities in this strategy is to "reduce the over-representation of people living with mental health problems and illnesses in the criminal justice system, and provide appropriate services, treatment, and supports to those who are in the system."
Right now, there are a higher percentage of people dealing with mental health issues involved in the criminal justice system and in Canadian prisons than there are in the general population. The Strategy calls for the use of more diversion programs in the justice system, including mental health courts and other programs, to keep people with mental illnesses out of prison and in treatment instead. The Strategy also calls for more mental health services and supports within the criminal justice system itself for both youth and adults.
Mental health courts do exist already, not everywhere in Canada. Diversion programs are available now in the criminal justice system for certain offences. These programs typically involve the completion of some set tasks, for example charitable donations, community service, counselling or courses. Once the required tasks are completed, the charges are withdrawn. These programs keep people out of the formal court process and often give them some much needed help through counselling and education.
The mental health strategy calls for an increased use of these programs, including the mental health courts, for those dealing with mental health issues so that they can get the help that they need to keep them out of the court system for good.
Right now, the criminal justice system is not meeting the needs of those with mental health issues. Some have said that prisons today are like 21st century asylums, where those with mental health issues are locked up and left without the care they need.
The goal of the Mental Health Commission's strategy is to shift the focus to treatment of mental health issues. There is an increased focus as well on the treatment of children and youth who experience mental health issues, as well as a focus on prevention and early intervention.
The goal is to make treatment for mental health issues available to people as easily as treatment for physical health issues. Too many people who need care are ending up in the criminal justice system because they are not getting the care they need. Among other things, the Strategy aims to fix this problem.