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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Getting started on a new plan for meaningful change

“I used to believe I was a bad person trying to be good,” says Steven Deveau, executive director of the 7th Step Society of Nova Scotia, a peer-run organization offering support to individuals who’ve been incarcerated. “My mindset changed when I realized I was a sick person trying to get well.”

As a person with lived experience of criminal justice involvement, Deveau’s sentiments could be widely shared among those who interact with the criminal justice system. Among federally incarcerated individuals, 73 per cent of men and 79 per cent of women meet the criteria for one or more current mental health disorders. Such statistics point to a need for increased access to quality mental health services, both within corrections and the community, as well as other prevention and early intervention supports like housing and education. As with all mental health concerns, it’s critical to ensure that people get help when they need it. Yet tangible progress toward these goals has so far been wanting.

Not just another report
“People ask me for my opinion. They ask, ‘What can we do to make things better?’” says Mo Korchinski, executive director of Unlocking the Gates Services Society. “And then it sits on a desk, and it stays in a report. I just want to see action.”

Inspired by this and other calls to produce meaningful change, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) is developing an action plan for Canada to support the mental health and well-being of people who interact with the justice system. It draws on the expertise of those with lived and living experience, along with other experts who have highlighted these issues for years. The action plan also relies on relevant work from the past two decades — including the MHCC’s 2012 Mental Health Strategy for Canada, which lists criminal justice as a priority — and what is currently being done to focus on actions capable of implementation. The scope of this national project will be broad and comprehensive, including a focus on upstream prevention and early intervention, structure, law reform, and system transformation, and an assessment of mental health supports for all types of criminal justice involvement, from first contact with police to community reintegration and every stage in between.

Inside the system
“I articled in a criminal court duty counsel office, and in that role I immediately recognized the intersectionality of mental health and the justice system,” says A.J. Grant-Nicholson, principal lawyer with Grant-Nicholson Law and project adviser for the action plan.

A.J. Grant-Nicholson

A.J. Grant-Nicholson

“All too often, I saw accused persons with cognitive challenges, trauma, psychiatric illness, and/or substance use and mental health concerns that related to their criminal charges. Quickly, I deduced that the justice system was the system of last resort — and sometimes the default system — for persons with mental health-related issues,” he says.

Grant-Nicholson’s career has long been focused on the topic. Following his articling program, he worked as a mental health staff lawyer at Legal Aid Ontario, the first position of its kind in the province. There, he represented clients who came before the Consent and Capacity Board and acted as duty counsel at a forensic psychiatric hospital as well as in mental health court.

“I observed that the justice system was not an ideal place to remedy mental health conditions,” he says. “Defence lawyers, prosecutors, justices of the peace, and judges are not clinicians. Criminal law is a blunt instrument that is limited in its ability to provide therapeutic support for accused persons with mental health-related needs.”

Grant-Nicholson acknowledges that there is “increasingly more mental health support in criminal courts, such as having a designated mental health court where accused persons can be connected to mental health workers and mental health-related programming.” However, he finds that “the availability and overall level of support is not consistent across all jurisdictions — and sometimes, accused persons are not aware of the mental health supports available to them.”

As a legal representative for detainees, Grant-Nicholson has seen a significant portion of incarcerated people with serious mental health and/or addiction issues, and he finds the intersection between mental health and the justice system readily apparent in detention facilities.

“It has been my experience that correctional institutions are suboptimal for mental health recovery and that incarceration itself exacerbates mental illness,” he says. “I have also seen the frequent pattern of clients with mental health conditions backsliding once they are released from detention and, subsequently, their almost inevitable re-entry into the justice system. This is often due to barriers in accessing health and social services in the community and/or finding suitable housing when they are discharged or released.”

Seeing these gaps, Grant-Nicholson is seeking to make meaningful change. “My hope is that the action plan will provide stakeholders with insights so the justice system will be better equipped to support mental health, and over time, fewer people with mental health conditions will be incarcerated and the recidivism rate will decrease for this population.”

Grant-Nicholson says that is why an action plan for Canada on mental health and criminal justice is so vital. Deveau of the 7th Step Society of Nova Scotia also sees hope with the project and the people who are part of the committee. It has the power to change lives and change communities, he says.

“I have this saying that I woke up today sober and not in prison — the physical or the mental one — so it’s a good day,” he says. “Some of the smallest things can be the greatest motivators.”

Learn more about the action plan and how you can contribute to its success.

Resources: Mental Health and Criminal Justice: What is the Issue?

Further reading: A Name and a Face: A filmmaker illustrates how easy it is for someone living with mental illness to end up on the street or get caught up in the criminal justice system.

Author: is a program manager at the Mental Health Commission of Canada leading work to develop an action plan to support the mental health and well-being of people who interact with the criminal justice system in Canada.
Inset photo: A.J. Grant-Nicholson
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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