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Mental Health Court: making a difference

For dozens of people over the past two years, Bermuda's Mental Health Court has been the launching pad in their mission to turn their lives around. Simon Jones was invited to a session to see the groundbreaking facility in action.

Applause. It is perhaps the last sound you would expect to ring around a courtroom.

But this is a different kind of court that is breaking new ground in Bermuda and is helping men and women that may have previously fallen through the cracks in society find a new purpose in life and fresh hope for the future.

Mental Health Court is transforming lives and before the end of the afternoon sitting the whole range of human emotions, failings and achievements will have been played out before Magistrate Nicole Stoneham.

Proceedings start ominously when a recently referred offender makes it clear he's in no mood to engage. He's loud, rude and offensive, but he's also in the minority.

The vast majority in court today express genuine gratitude for the opportunities the programme has provided; some say it has saved their life, others who have slipped up beg for a last chance to remain on the course.

A second man comes forward. “I'm focusing on mental wellness, you know, doing my best and putting my best foot forward,” he proudly proclaims. He's had a good week by all accounts, working with red salvias for another programme partner.

Senior probation officer Russ Ford further outlines the man's progress to the court and reveals he has a job interview with programme partner the next day.

“Can anyone tell him what to expect in this interview or how he should prepare,” asks the magistrate opening the discussion up to the rest of the room.

“Keep your pants up,” shouts a voice from the back.

“Good advice,” says the magistrate, “and well done on another successful week. We'll see you again on January 28.” Applause ripples around the courtroom in recognition of the participant's achievements.

Two more participants follow the same pattern, openly discussing the fruits and frustrations of their past seven days — and then there's a surprise return.

A young lady steps forward. She's one of the programme's success stories having recently completed the course and she's come back to update the team on her progress and offer words of encouragement to the people sitting where she once sat.

She's welcomed back to the court like an old friend. “We are delighted to see you,” says Ms Stoneham, sentiments echoed by her old lawyer Saul Dismont, Kelly Madeiros, the team leader from Court Services who helps co-ordinate the programme, and Karen King from the Department of Public Prosecutions.

“Things are going good,” says the young lady. “I start at school this evening. I am getting myself around positive people and I've got a job cleaning houses.”

As she turns to leave she has a message for those still in the programme: “I recently learnt a quote, it was Caesar who said 'experience in the best teacher'. Learn from your experiences, keep moving forward and do good.”

As the clapping dies down another participant comes forward. He's shy and quietly spoken, but opens up as he talks chess.

Mr Ford reveals the young man is doing “remarkably well” and working on his GED and after more praise from the magistrate slips back into the public gallery.

Today is a big day for the next man to make his way to the front, it's his last appearance at Mental Health Court before he completes the programme.

As a youngster he was in and out of prison, but in Mental Health Court he has thrived and blazed a trail that others will aspire to follow. His pending departure from the programme prompts a series of emotional farewell speeches from Ms Madeiros, Mr Dismont, Ms King and the judge, culminating in the presentation of a completion certificate.

Mr Dismont tells him: “I know that I will see you in years to come and be very, very proud of you. You really are a leader. You should be very proud of yourself.”

The young man thanks all those in the team who have stood by him and then turns to face his fellow participants: “I've come a long way. I started at the bottom.

“At first it was a life of doom getting in trouble and running with the wrong crowd. I realised in prison that no one really looks out for you apart from your mom.

“I distanced myself from certain people and stayed optimistic about my future. If I get in trouble now it will be because I put myself in that situation.”

There's barely a dry eye in the courtroom as attention turns to another participant dressed in corrections orange sitting behind the glass.

He's in orange because he's got in trouble with the law for the first time in nearly a year and breached his probation.

By doing so he has jeopardised his accommodation and his place on the programme. He begs for one last chance, but not before his mother breaks down in tears as she tells him: “This is the last bit I can take. You have broken me. Now you have to show me you can pull yourself together.”

Ms Stoneham asks him why he wants to be allowed back into the programme. He answers simply: “This programme saved my life. Before I came here I could not see my left from my right hand. It gave me belief I could be a better person.”

The magistrate accedes to the plea and the man will be back in Mental Health Court next week minus the orange outfit.

Proceedings gradually begin to wind up, but not before another twist sees the first participant in the programme make an unwelcome return to the court.

He had made huge progress on the programme, but traumatic events beyond his control meant he fell into trouble again and now he is back in mental health court for sentencing rather than the traditional weekly review.

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Published January 25, 2016 at 8:00 am (Updated January 25, 2016 at 8:26 am)

Mental Health Court: making a difference

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