Mental Health Meets Criminal Defense

I’m a criminal defense attorney, not a mental health professional.  Yet, mental health issues and depression intersect with my work in more ways than you might think. Many of my clients struggle with mental health issues, and they are certainly not alone.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimated that in 2016 16.2 million adults suffered from at least one episode of depression. Far too many lose this battle by ending their lives, and estimates suggest that national suicide rates have increased over the last 15 years. National Suicide Prevention Awareness week is designed to call attention to these alarming statistics. If you ask my opinion, though, we should dedicate time every day to raising awareness about depression and suicide. Because that’s the frequency with which I encounter these issues in my Colorado criminal defense legal practice.

The Mental Health Issues Underneath the Criminal Charges

There are known and effective treatments for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders (although I have to note that treatments and their efficacy vary widely from person to person). One way that many people treat these issues, however, is to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Often, people don’t realize they have a mental health issue. Often, they don’t recognize that their use of drugs and alcohol is linked to an attempt to treat the immediate symptoms of these disorders.

Multiple DUI/DWAI charges or frequent drug possession charges can be symptomatic of underlying addiction issues. And addiction, in turn, can indicate untreated or mistreated underlying mental health problems.

Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can intensify feelings of sadness, counteract prescription medications, and even affect the immune system. Drinking to forget, emotional drinking, binge drinking, or other troublesome behaviors can be indicative of a deeper need for help. And I try to help as best I can. Of course, I can’t diagnose people (with anything other than legal problems), but I can help my clients find a counselor or addiction specialist, whether as part of a plea deal or independent of their criminal case.

Depression & Domestic Violence

Domestic violence has devastating consequences on victims. The most extreme cases see victims doubting personal abilities, making excuses for visible injuries, and consistently trying to please the partner in order to avoid acts of violence from their loved one. Victims can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, etc. Perpetrators can also fail to see the seriousness of their actions, or, conversely, can be overwhelmed with guilt.  These emotional and physical effects on both sides of a DV situation can, in turn, lead to depression. To cope with their reality or self-mediate the symptoms of depression, many people turn to drugs and alcohol.

Domestic violence is complicated. The notion that there is a clear cut “victim” 100% of the time is not always the reality. Parties alternate between offender and victim depending on circumstances. Drugs and alcohol just contribute to a downward spiral that often leads to depression and, in the worst cases, suicide.

Because I understand how frequently mental health disorders are implicated in my domestic violence cases (both through my Colorado defense firm but also through my involvement with Project Safeguard, supporting victims), I almost always raise treatment in the course of my work on criminal defense cases. Depending on the circumstances of the case, I talk with my criminal defense clients about any number of treatment options:

  • Couples counseling
  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Anger management
  • Court-ordered Domestic Violence Offender Treatment
  • Family counseling
  • Parenting skills classes

Even if it is court ordered, treatment benefits both domestic violence victims and abusers in the criminal defense context.  In any case, suicide is not the answer.

You are not alone, and help is not far away

If you or someone you know is depressed or considering suicide, help is closer than you might think.  If you are going through a criminal proceeding while having these bouts of suicidal ideation, please talk to your attorney, the judge, or even your probation/parole officer about getting some help.  Sometimes, it’s as easy as breaking you out of a one-time funk… other cases require years of in depth management by skilled professionals. In any situation, though, there are people and organizations that can help.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, 24/7 support for people in distress or crisis: call 1-800-273 8255

Lifeline Chat, a service of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, connects people with counselors immediately, online, and 24 hours a day:

Crisis Text Line is a free, 24/7 support network connecting people in crisis to counselors: text CONNECT to 741741

You are not alone.