Mental health and the courts: a difficult spiral

There’s an alternative to criminal justice system for the mentally ill, but lawmakers balk

“Who needs Mental Health Court?” by Elissa Ely (Opinion, Aug. 25) describes an all-too-common scenario in Massachusetts: A person whose mental illness causes him to believe he is not ill refuses needed treatment and becomes caught up in the criminal justice system. Even Mental Health Court isn’t enough.

But what if arrest were not the first opportunity for treatment? What if treatment was possible before arrest, even for those who cannot participate in community treatment voluntarily? Families know that once a loved one has a criminal record, the system regards them as a criminal and not a patient in need.


Unfortunately, this failure is a conscious decision by Massachusetts policy makers. Every year, a bill is introduced to make such care possible using a proven program called assisted outpatient treatment. But it dies every year, forcing law enforcement and ill-prepared families to shoulder the burden.

Amazingly, Massachusetts is one of only three states without such a law. But it does not need to be that way. Tell your lawmakers you want them to finally do the right thing for those most in need. Tell them to pass an assisted outpatient treatment law this session.

John Snook
Executive director
Treatment Advocacy Center
Arlington, Va.

For many, the mental health system is not a healing place

I appreciate the care expressed by Elissa Ely (“Who needs Mental Health Court?”), but not her approach.

It’s true some distressed people act contrary to their interests and become violent, but drugs and forced hospitalization aren’t the solution.

I spent years in our so-called mental health system, and found it destructive. The medications have awful side effects, including insomnia, anxiety, suicidality, and homicidal ideation.

They don’t heal, and they often cause people to act like zombies and sometimes become violent. Even if one is “free,” these medications create a psychotropic prison without walls.

Meanwhile, hospitals rarely allow fresh air; food is unhealthy. The combination of no freedom and a patronizing attitude encourages dependency. They’re like prisons, though seemingly more benign, and they cost a ton.


That money must go to create centers with trained peers with lived experience who listen empathically and offer healthy food, fresh air, love, safe release of trauma, work skills — access to whatever we need to be interdependent human beings.

If people must be sentenced, don’t sentence them to places full of drugs and electroconvulsive therapy, but to refuges that promote genuine healing. I’ve experienced this healing and want to see it made available to all.

Shifra Freewoman