Turning crime into a mental-health issue

The UK Department of Health announced this week that it would be providing an extra £25million of funding for mental-health nurses and other mental health professionals to work with police stations and courts. It is hoped that the early identification of, and subsequent support for, those with mental-health problems will reduce rates of reoffending.

According to the Department of Health, most prison inmates have a mental-health problem, substance-misuse problem or learning disability. The Royal College of Nursing believes that the move will improve healthcare for those in the criminal-justice system while freeing up police time. For health minister Norman Lamb, such a move ‘just makes so much sense from everyone’s point of view’.

It is true that the police spend a lot of their time dealing with mental-health issues: from deciding whether a suspect is fit to be questioned to arranging for an ‘appropriate adult’ to be present if they believe a suspect to be ‘mentally disordered’ or ‘mentally vulnerable’. (For an understanding of the day-to-day complexities and frustrations that can arise at the interface of mental health and the criminal-justice system, follow the excellent @mentalhealthcop on Twitter.)

The examples given in the Department of Health’s press release for situations where mental-health support would be needed included dealing with people with learning disabilities, dementia and psychosis. However, the video clip used to explain the new provisions on the BBC News website suggests that someone who simply gets angry with the police would be seen as in need of similar intervention and support. Such a conflation of categories and resultant behaviours is problematic. The danger here is that we risk reducing the complex reasons for criminal behaviour to a crude form of psychopathology. Just as neuroscience is so often used to mitigate individual responsibility in the criminal-justice system (‘It wasn’t me your honour, it was my brain wot done it’), the expansion of ‘therapeutic justice’ seeks to explain away criminal behaviour using individual symptomology.

These developments are part of a trend whereby more and more social problems are cast as mental-health issues. From this perspective, the problem of unemployment, and the anger it can generate in those unemployed, is not caused by economic or structural factors but instead is down to the faulty thought processes of the unemployed, with therapy or counselling seen as the solution. Likewise, moral issues such as teenage pregnancy, sexual promiscuity, alcohol or drug misuse are recast as emanating from psychological problems – due to an individual’s ‘low self-esteem’.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim considered a small amount of crime to be normal for a society, in that the transgression of moral codes by the few paradoxically helps to reinforce behavioural boundaries for the many. In this sense, without an awareness of what is ‘bad’ we cannot know what is ‘good’. Perhaps it is this failure to confront moral, political and economic issues on their own terms that is at the heart of this drive towards therapeutic justice, with a small amount of crime cast as abnormal. This is a dangerous trend. Not only does therapeutic justice mean we ignore the structural and economic causes of society’s problems, but it erodes the concept that individuals hold personal responsibility for their actions, and, in the process, undermines the very possibility of both individual and collective progress.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His most recent book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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