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Magistrate backs more help for mentally ill

Senior Magistrate Juan Wolffe (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Senior Magistrate Juan Wolffe is prepared to join lobbying efforts to put pressure on legislators when it comes to updating Bermuda’s laws dealing with mental health.

Mr Wolffe spoke candidly with The Royal Gazette on the introduction of restorative justice to the Island, as well as the development of a pilot mental health court system.

Judges have their hands tied when people appear before the courts who are clearly suffering from mental disorders, he said, adding: “It’s very frustrating.”

Mr Wolffe noted the Human Rights Commission’s efforts to get discrimination against the mentally ill set out as unlawful.

“You could amend the Human Rights Act very simply — that’s an easy fix,” he said. “In terms of the Mental Health Act of 1968, the question is, do you need to amend it or repeal it for a wholesale change in the Act? I don’t understand why it is difficult, why it’s taking so long. This topic has been discussed for many years.”

The majority of people who are mentally ill do not commit crimes, Mr Wolffe said, adding: “What we’ve been crying out for is a designated forensic unit at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute to deal with individuals who do need help.”

Mr Wolffe recalled the case of an individual hanging himself while in custody.

“He needed treatment and he didn’t get it,” he said. “We are clearly deficient in having a unit that can assist in dealing with cases such as chronic schizophrenia or severe episodes of bipolar disorder.”

The Island needs “a legislative and procedural basis for a magistrate to say that it’s clear someone suffers from a mental issue and should be admitted to MWI right now so he can get help immediately”, Mr Wolffe said.

“But our hands are tied because the legislation says we have to get them assessed, that we need two psychiatrists — it’s too much of a wait. We need to get rid of that procedural roadblock.”

While the drug treatment court has many tools at its disposal, Mr Wolffe said little could be done without a legislative foundation for a mental health court.

“The pilot programme has been in place for two years; it was supposed to be a pilot for one year. I do understand this issue is on the front burner, but until that happens, our hands are tied.”

Restorative justice has no legislation in place, he said, although the alternatives to incarceration initiative, of which drug treatment court is a part, contains many elements.

“Before we make a decision to incarcerate, we have to be satisfied that there is no alternative,” Mr Wolffe said.

“The easiest and quickest way of dealing with somebody is to lock them up, but that’s not the answer. How is locking somebody up going to improve society? We have to find a way to highlight the wrong, of course, but also to assist so that it does not happen again.

“There is a certain pattern of persons coming out of prison and going back again. That’s where restorative justice comes in, in restoring that individual.”

He does not believe that most victims who appear before Bermuda’s courts want to see the perpetrators of crimes incarcerated.

“They want to see that person get help,” Mr Wolffe said. “Particularly in the drug treatment court, part of the treatment is that they have to make amends.

“What I find interesting, every time a person commits a criminal offence, is that they all have a story.

“For many of them, something happened in their life. It might have been some traumatic event such as a dysfunctional upbringing or sexual abuse. When you start hearing the stories of how people got on that road, you start feeling a little bit of empathy.”

However, he added: “Not enough is being done to restore the victims. One of the failures in the criminal justice system is that we don’t do enough to deal with the issues that are suffered by victims of crime. We do not have enough programmes or counselling.

“I would like to see an agency that specifically deals with the victims of crime and their families. That’s where we are lacking in our restorative justice, and where we can do a lot more.

“We have a witness care unit at the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office doing a good job assisting during a case. I wonder whether or not we can have one person on staff, maybe in the Department of Court Services, who will just deal with victims. I don’t think everything should come down to money. We can be creative in finding a way.”

Mr Wolffe said a similar resourcefulness could be brought to bear in coming up with a residential facility for the mental health court.

“We have the Nelson Bascome residential facility in Dockyard, which is a multipurpose facility that has been doing well in assisting addicts,” he said. “It has had challenges but is doing fairly well. There is another place in St George’s, called Jerry’s House — Sandy Butterfield and her people made it happen. A facility like that where persons can be treated humanely can exist.

“We would need a facility that could house six to ten people with a manager on site, a psychiatrist who can come in and out and someone who can help with life skills. I think it’s possible.”

On the need for reform, Mr Wolffe said: “There has to be some level of judicial activism on this. Judges and magistrates can be very persuasive.

“We see people with mental health and drug abuse issues on a day-to-day basis. Our say should carry a lot of water in legislative reform and change.

“The Chief Justice is very much on board when it comes to restorative justice and human rights issues. That’s one thing I want to do as Senior Magistrate: highlight issues with mental health and hopefully persuade him to make recommendations. If we stay in our own silos, we’ll never make things happen.”

<p>Activist laments ‘incredibly slow’ progress</p>

Progress in developing a mental health court in Bermuda has been “incredibly slow”, activist and journalist Liana Hall has observed.

Ms Hall, who speaks frankly of her own experience with bipolar disorder, contrasted Bermuda’s attitude to mental health with her experiences in Britain.

“What I get in the UK is not available in Bermuda. I have gone through a mental health crisis, and instead of being put in hospital, they sent people to my house every day for two weeks to check on me,” she said.

“They gave me my medication every day, and I had a 24-hour hotline that I could call. In Bermuda, it’s one thing or the other; it’s like the opposite. You get institutionalised or you get nothing.”

On Bermuda’s pilot mental health court programme, Ms Hall said: “My concern is that it specifically says it’s for non-violent, minor offences. I would like to know more about what it actually covers.”

She acknowledged the stereotype that “mentally ill people are violent”, but said that with no residential facility and a court geared for milder offences, people would inevitably be excluded.

She recalled widespread discussion over the need for a mental health court after Lorenzo Robinson, a man suffering from schizophrenia, went on trial for stabbing a tourist on Front Street in 2002.

“Even his victim said that he needed help,” she said. “It was inhumane for him to be kept in Westgate.”

Prison officers spoke out over the incarceration of the mentally ill after Mr Robinson stabbed an officer in 2005. He took his own life in prison in 2008.

“I remember the debate around that, and it was a long time ago,” Ms Hall said. In Britain, she said, people could be “sectioned” or detained under the Mental Health Act, much more easily than in Bermuda — and with a view to protecting people from themselves.

Such measures come into play when people with mental illness lapse in their medication, she said, pointing out that she had experienced the urge herself.

Bermuda’s legislation lags so far behind that under the terms of the present Act, Ms Hall said it was possible for her to be blocked from getting married here, as someone with a disorder.

“I found that out while I was researching for marriage equality — a marriage is void is either party is suffering from a mental disorder under the terms of the Mental Health Act,” she said.