Written by Meagan Anderson
As someone who struggles with multiple mental illnesses, I am very aware of the stigmatization of mental illness in day-to-day life. However, it wasn’t until I read Crazy, by Pete Earley, that I saw the extent of stigmatization at an institutional level, specifically in America’s legal system. His book is full of his family’s personal experiences with mental illness and the legal system interjected with interviews of professionals, ranging from prison guards to lawyers, whose job is to work with mentally-ill individuals throughout their legal experiences. There are stories of hope but all too many stories of neglect and mistreatment. Earley speaks with people who make it their life’s work to help people who are trapped in the revolving door of mental illness and prison, but at the same time, he describes many lives, including his son’s, that are dramatically altered by the stigmatization and misunderstandings of people working in the criminal legal system.
I came to the realization while reading this book that the reason that those living with mental illness are treated so differently in the legal system is due to the misrepresentation of what it means to have a mental illness. The words “mental illness” encompass a vast number of diagnoses, yet when the broad term is used many people jump to conclusions about what it means. The most troubling assumption being that mentally-ill individuals are more likely to be violent and criminal than the rest of the population. If this were the case it would make sense that mentally-ill individuals would get longer sentences, but it is simply not true. This perception of the mentally ill may likely be a coping mechanism for some people who do not want to believe that just anyone could commit certain crimes. This might make them feel safer but it puts people with mental illness in danger, by causing harsher sentencing.
This violent and criminal interpretation of the mentally-ill has been an issue for a very long time.
One of the reasons it is such a common misconception is that mental illness being equated to crime is often over-reported by media. A very recent study done at John Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health found that four in ten articles written by news outlets about mental illness connected it to violent crimes. This gives the general public (who are active jury participants in our legal system) a very skewed perception of the connection between mental illness and crime. These articles provide the public with the implication that around 40% of crimes committed are by people with mental illness. The actual statistic is stated to be less than 5%, which indicates a very small connection between mental illness and crime. The reasons people with mental illness commit crimes is likely just as varied as the reasons any other individual would commit a crime.
Even with research that negates the idea that crime and mental illness are equated the misconception still follows mentally-ill people throughout their entire legal proceedings. I was shocked to read all the examples Earley wrote about of how everyday people/jury members, judges, and lawyers are likely to make different legal decisions about a defendant due to their mental health. Earley describes many people who get longer sentences in prison than other prisoners without mental illness who committed similar crimes. Earley’s own son had two felonies filed against him instead of misdemeanors, for a non-violent crime, because the people pressing charges were afraid that because he was “crazy” he would come after them again. This treatment of the mentally-ill is discrimination, or stigmatization at the very least.
While reading Crazy my mind raced trying to find solutions to all the different problems that I saw within the chapters. Could we have additional training for criminal caseworkers and judges? Or more expert witnesses in trials? Everything I thought of seemed great but also not entirely realistic. It would be costly and unfair to put these people through additional work when the stigmatization of the mentally-ill is not only a legal problem but mainly a societal problem. Having the few people that are in the legal system learning more about mental health would not solve everything. Instead, it is better to educate everyone, through books like Crazy, or clothing companies like Wear Your Label. Anything that gets the conversation started is powerful and will eventually find its way to helping get rid of the mistreatment of the mentally-ill in every walk of life including the legal system.
Sources for facts found in paragraph 3
Johns Hopkins (2016).Study: News Stories Often Link Violence With Mental Health Illness, Even Though People With Mental Health Illness Are Rarely Violent. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.