Mental Health Training for Criminal Justice Professionals


Hundreds of pages of court documents in the case of James Holmes were released yesterday. Holmes, who has been charged with killing 12 people and wounding an additional 52 in the Aurora Colorado movie theatre, had allegedly threatened a professor before withdrawing from his neuroscience program at the University of Colorado and sent a package containing a notebook and burnt currency to his psychiatrist before the July 20th shooting.

“The most legally significant disclosure Friday was the inclusion of the psychiatrist on Holmes’ defense team,” wrote the Associated Press’ Nicholas Riccardi and P. Solomon Banda yesterday. “Holmes’ attorneys have said he is mentally ill”.

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While it’s quite possible Holmes is suffering from a mental disorder (we are prone to think that someone who would allegedly pull off such a massacre would have to be), only those psychiatric professionals who have or will assess him have the most accurate insight into his psyche.

It does bring to mind however how those with mental illness, particularly a psychotic disorder, may be stereotyped as being automatically dangerous or violent. “A report by Otto Wahl states that more than 70% of characters with mental illnesses in prime-time television drama are portrayed as violent, and more than one fifth are shown as killers…” says the State of New Jersey’s Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma. “…when in actuality, studies have shown that only a minuscule percentage of the violence in American society can be attributed to people who have mental illnesses”. NetWellness (run by three universities in Ohio) adds that those with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence compared to the rest of the population.

Luckily mental health training among criminal justice professionals is increasingly emphasized for the consideration of those they deal with who suffer from mental illness as well as for their own benefit and society as a whole. For example, a retired police major from Memphis, Tennessee Sam Cochran developed a program that as of 2009 was being used by more than 600 police departments across the country. “Called the Crisis Intervention Team, Cochran’s project teaches officers to recognize situations where mental health is a factor and to prevent those situations from escalating,” reported INFORUM’s Dave Roepke.

Additionally a report developed in 2002 (the “Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project” by the Council of State Governments) recommends training and increased awareness for criminal justice professionals across the system, from law enforcement and corrections officers to court personnel and mental health providers.

If you are thinking of going into a criminal justice profession, and want to educate yourself about mental health, numerous colleges and universities also offer the option of completing a criminal justice degree with a specialization or double major in psychology. One such school, Husson University, says that a number of career opportunities await those who graduate from a criminal justice-psychology program, such as working as a forensic examiner, court liaison, counterterrorism analyst, victim advocate, mental health case manager, probation or parole officer and investigative analyst or for the Secret Service, FBI and CIA.