The Experience of Participants and Their Support Persons in The Saskatoon Mental Health Strategy Court: An Exploratory Study
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Mental health courts (MHCs) are specialty courts designed to address the issue of criminalizing and incarcerating people who experience mental health issues or intellectual disabilities by providing health and social services rather than jail sentences. Such a court was opened in November 2013 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada as a collaborative endeavor between the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice (MOJ), and the Saskatoon Health Region (SHR; currently Saskatchewan Health Authority). This qualitative master’s thesis is part of the Center for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies’ (CFBSJS) larger study entitled: Saskatoon Mental Health Strategy: Preliminary Evaluation of Client Outcomes project. Purpose of the Study: The purpose of this study was to incorporate the voices of those people who can speak with the most personal knowledge about the influence of the SMHSC process: the participants going through the SMHSC, and their closest supports. The findings illuminate what stood out from the participants’ experiences, and what impacts they perceived the SMHSC has had on their well-being. Research Question: “What is the experience of participants and their support persons in the Saskatoon Mental Health Strategy court?” Methodology: An Interpretive Description (ID) approach was chosen for this qualitative study design. Participants: Seventeen people were interviewed: 11 SMHSC participants and 6 support persons. Findings: Overall participant descriptions of the experience ranged from “the best thing that ever happened to me” to reportedly feeling “raped” by the process. The participants and their support persons communicated high levels of stress and anxiety related to the court legal process, exacerbated by personal histories of trauma. Parallels between the dynamics of abusive relationships and the court process were found in all narratives. Support persons expressed a heavy burden of responsibility paired with very little input, as illustrated by one person who stated, “they might as well be charging me”. Although the Indigenous population overall is overrepresented in the criminal justice system, they are underrepresented in the SMHSC. Recommendations: The incorporation of trauma informed practice and restorative justice principles in to this court process is recommended, which may include increasing the involvement of health care professionals in screening, assessment, and case management; including more education and resources; and making changes to the courtroom layout to improve communication between all parties. Limitations of the Study: A limitation common to all studies involving MHCs is their lack of generalizability, as each court’s design, composition of the interdisciplinary team involved in the court, and partnering services is highly variable. The people recruited to this study were those who were willing and able to speak about their experiences. They represent a small portion of the people who attended the SMHSC, and recruitment may have missed those who had different experiences not captured in this study. Conclusion: The overall experience of attending the SMHSC is highly variable and dependent on interpersonal relationships with other actors in the courtroom. Although the intents of the SMHSC are noble, by participant accounts, in its current form it continues to cause harm to an already vulnerable and traumatized population, and its screening processes are overlooking many candidates, particularly Indigenous peoples. Participants and support person perspectives may help shape the court structure to be more effective, through considering a trauma-informed lens, and being a more participant-centered process.
DegreeMaster of Nursing (M.N.)
CommitteeHoltslander, Lorraine; Peternelj-Taylor, Cindy; Holly, Graham; Mishak, Brenda; Buhler, Sarah
Copyright DateJune 2020
Mental health court