Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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d. How to recognise when a defendant might have a mental health condition - Film Clip

Film clip 3 (05:59 mins)

Three people with mental health conditions talk about their experiences of going to court. They describe what they found particularly difficult, how they felt their mental health wasn’t always taken into consideration, and what might have helped.

Most people find going to court a stressful experience. Factors such as a night in a police cell prior to a court appearance can add to levels of stress and agitation. For some individuals, this can lead to the development of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, especially if they have poor personal coping strategies or few family members or friends able to provide support. Women, who are frequently the primary carers of children, can be left especially anxious when separated from their children, and fear that they may be taken into care.

Stress can exacerbate an existing mental health condition and symptoms and associated behaviours may get worse and become more prominent.

It can be very difficult to know when a defendant might have a mental health condition or is simply experiencing a degree of stress and discomfort due to their appearance in court. Unlike some physical health conditions, you cannot see a mental illness. A mental health condition is often referred to as a ‘hidden disability’ because of this.

There is a lot of stigma associated with having a mental health condition. Individuals with a mental health condition might not want to tell anyone about it, even when asked. They may fear being ridiculed or worry that others will view them negatively. There are some signs to look out for.

A defendant with a mental health condition might:

  • avoid eye contact 
  • lack in energy and appear very slow, almost ‘switched off’ and empty
  • be very restless, fidgety, breathe heavily and be sweating
  • be very emotional and crying
  • talk very negatively about themselves 
  • appear flamboyant and speak very highly of themselves
  • find it difficult to answer questions quickly or succinctly with yes/no answers
  • speak very quickly and jump into conversations when they haven’t been asked a question
  • not make sense when they talk, they may have muddled or disordered speech
  • look around the room, appear as though they’re not listening
  • forget what’s just been said, or what they were saying 
  • talk to themselves or appear distracted 
  • turn up in court dressed inappropriately or be unkempt in their appearance.

There may be a number of reasons why someone might act like this. It may look as if someone is being disrespectful, difficult or untruthful. If someone has a mental health condition, they may not be able to control their behaviour. The stress of being at court may make this behaviour more likely. Alcohol and drug use could make this behaviour worse or make people more likely to behave in these ways.

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