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Mental health: what are the tools for change?

May 17, 2023

By Cheryl Wright

May has been recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month, a reflection that there is a mental health crisis in America - in our communities, schools, prisons, and the courts. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health:

1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year

1 in 20 U.S. adults experiences serious mental illness each year

1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year

50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24

Suicide is the 2ndleading cause of death among people aged 10-14

The Prison Policy Initiative has compiled resources and key statistics on the relationship between mental health and the criminal justice system:

43% of people in state prisons have been diagnosed with a mental disorder

1 in 4 people experiencing "serious psychological distress" are in jails

66% of people in federal prisons have reported not receiving any mental health care while incarcerated

27% of police shootings in 2015 involved a mental health crisis

27% of people jailed 3 or more times within a year reported having a moderate or serious mental illness

Clifford Beers sparked the mental health reform movement and detailed his experiences in his autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself. One hundred years later, the mental health crisis still looms over us, but there is still hope.

In March 2020, the National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Response to Mental Illness was established. The task force’s goal was to help state courts better respond to the needs of court-involved individuals with serious mental illness. It developed behavioral health tools, resources, best practices, and policies. In October 2022, it published State Courts Leading Change: Report and Recommendations. Conference of State Court Administrators President Karl Hade stated, “The Task Force has been one of the most significant national efforts I’ve seen undertaken by the Conferences, recommending the systemic changes needed in our courts and communities.” There are State Resources and Publications detailing what states are doing to address mental illness.

According to the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, there are nearly 300 mental health courts in the U.S. today, with programs in nearly every state. CSG’s Mental Health Court: A Guide to Research Informed Policy and Practice provides research findings and the goals of mental health courts. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has compiled a list of mental health treatment courts. The Vermont Supreme Court recently established the Vermont Judiciary Commission on Mental Health and the Courts “in recognition of the impact that individuals with mental health issues have on Vermont’s courts and to respond to their needs.”

Is your court being proactive in addressing the mental health crisis? Share your experiences with us. For more information, contact or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Vimeo.