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What I Surprisingly Witnessed in a Mental Health Courtroom

Every Thursday on the fourth floor of the Multnomah County Courthouse, Mental Health Court (MHC) is brought to order. After a month of sitting in and observing, I was surprised at what I witnessed — there was a radiance of peace, a kindness, a zen. Before the judge were dozens of people who were struggling with a mental health diagnosis, court/case monitors, and often the family members of those in attendance, all of which had come before the court.

A cooperative effort, the mission behind Mental Health Court’s specialized treatment is simple: to reduce criminal activity committed by persons struggling with a qualifying mental health diagnosis. Mental Health Court participants are on probation; both supervised (formal probation) and unsupervised (bench probation). As a condition of the probation, defendants are offered an opportunity to participate in the Mental Health Court program. It takes a minimum of one year to complete Mental Health Court, and successful participants are often able to shorten the length of their probationary period.

As each participants came forward with heartfelt anxiousness, they sat down next to the attorney who was there on their behalf, seated within a few feet of the judge. As I watched the judge, I saw the amazing capacity for empathy and patience; and beautiful in its simplicity, an intrinsic kindness unlike I had seen ever before inside a courtroom.

Participants spoke of homelessness, drug addiction, domestic abuse and undiagnosed, untreated mental illness. Each clearly demonstrated the toll their personal experience took on them.

Participants seemed to care most (without a word spoken) about simply having their life acknowledge — to know their life mattered and that it had meaning. The judge made it clear that their life did, in fact, matter. And most of those who appeared that day all walked away carrying that belief within themselves until their next appearance.

Mental Health Court participant’s are assigned to a Mental Health Court monitor. The monitor works with the participant on issues such as housing, medication management, healthcare appointments and transportation. Participants are expected to stay free of drugs and alcohol, to meet regularly with their assigned monitor, to take all prescribed medication, pay restitution to victims, keep all appointments with service providers and obey all laws.

As participants navigated their tenure of MHC successfully, all stopped to acknowledge their achievement, standing side by side with the judge, holding their certificate of acknowledgment, as proud family members and mental health monitors looked on fondly from the gallery while photos were taken.

This was worthy of everyone’s attention, despite any other court considerations. Everyone stopped to honor the graduates of Mental Health Court.

Remember, we all need each other.

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Thinkstock photo via Wave Break Media