LSJ alum returns to classroom with course on mental health and the law

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 20 percent of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.

Students in Kirsten Longaker’s special topics course, “Mental Health and the Law” examine how those with mental illness are treated within the criminal justice system and how the courts have shaped this landscape.

As a public defender for the last two years working in mental health court, and as an alumnus of Law, Societies, and Justice, Longaker said that it was important for her to share her experiences with students.

“Working in the field keeps me up to date with regards to changes in the relevant law and allows me to have contacts in the community who can come to class as guest speakers,” she said.

Longaker said that jails are some of the largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the United States.

“I’m really passionate about it because I feel that people with mental illness have been treated poorly through deinstitutionalization and there are very few resources available for them,” Longaker said. “I see many people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system and I don’t believe it’s the right place for them.”

Guinevere Becker, a senior studying LSJ with an interest in bioethics and humanities said that Longaker’s experience as a public defender at the Seattle Municipal Mental Health Court brings a unique perspective to class.

“I think she brings a phenomenal perspective to the class because of her experience as a defender for the mentally ill in mental health court,” Becker said. “She really knows what she is talking about and has real-life perspective on how these issues play out.”

Longaker said that it was important for students to understand how the criminal justice became the de facto mental health system, the stigma associated with mental illness along with the intersection between drugs and alcohol in mental health.

Brittany Ward, a senior in LSJ, said that the class has given her a good overview of mental health and the law.

Ward said that she especially connected to the book, Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, by Peter Early, which is a firsthand account of someone attempting to serve as a guardian for his son who has a mental illness.

“Everybody loved the book, it’s really raw and has a lot of emotion. It’s a good read and it brings into account issues of personal freedom and public safety,” Ward said. “It brings the humanity into the politics of the issue.”

Nicole Hill, a junior studying LSJ, said that the class has challenged a lot of stereotypes that exist about the mentally ill.

“For example, the idea that those with mental illness are violent is often false,” Hill said.

Hill said that she was surprised to learn the ways in which the criminal justice system has become the de facto mental health system.

“The criminal justice system is one of the worst places for those suffering from mental illness,” Hill said. “In the jails, the mentally ill are subject to victimization, a lack of adequate treatment, traumatic experiences that worsen their condition, as well as other potential problems.”

In addition to the readings, discussions and mock trials, students are also required to visit a mental health court and write a response paper about their experience.

“I think it is very helpful for my students to see the themes they read about in class play out in reality,” Longaker said.

Hill said that visiting the courtroom helped her better understand the reading.

“Visiting mental health court is a great idea for students in this class. It was different from what I expected, and I was better able to understand how the procedures I observed demonstrated the court’s objective of therapeutic justice,” Hill said. “For example, the judge was more compassionate than I would have expected.”

Becker said that the assignment is a good way for students to have firsthand experience.

“It brought the readings to life and allowed us to see the theories we are learning about in practice,” Becker said. “Seeing the practical real-life side of mental illness and the law rounds out our learning on the subject and allows us to see how concepts in class actually play out.”

Munish Bharti said that as a graduating senior who plans on going to law school, he really enjoys that the class is structured similar to a law school class.

“Classroom discussions more than anything have been the most helpful for me,” Bharti said. “We are required, not expected to have done the readings before class in order for meaningful conversations to take place because those very conversations allow us to learn from each other.”

Besides the readings, the class had guest speakers come in and talk about their roles in the mental health field.

The first guest speaker was clinical social worker Roopali Dhingra who works at Associated Council for the Accused and spoke about mental diagnoses and treatment options. The second guest speaker was Officer Scott Enright who works at the Seattle Police Department and spoke about his role as a crisis intervention team (CIT) officer.

“Guest speakers have been great in terms of demonstrating some of the real-world implications of the policies we have discussed in class. We have discussed hypotheticals in the class and then we were able to ask the CIT officer how these situations would play out in an encounter,” Hill said. “The CIT officer also explained the moral importance of taking an interest over a long period of time and showing respect in every encounter.”  

Becker said that the guest speakers were great additions to the class.

“It was great to get information from different professionals’ perspectives on the process of the mentally ill engaging in the law,” Becker said. “It rounded out our learning of the subject and gave us more information on how the process works.”

Ward said that the course has changed the way she thinks about mental health and the law.

“I’m starting to grapple with the concept that mental health is really an illness and I’ve never had interaction with people with mental illness so this class brings a more realistic understanding of the disability that a huge population faces,” Ward said.

Becker said that as an LSJ alum, Longaker is able to connect to students.

“It’s nice to have a professor who went through the same program, and is able to talk about how LSJ prepared her for her career,” Becker said. “She is able to present real-life examples to what we are learning about in the readings, making the subject more relatable to us as students.  Because she works so close to UW and deals with these issues right here in Seattle, the subject becomes much more relevant.”

Ward agreed and said that alums are a great source of knowledge because of the experiences that they have had.

“I think it’s great to have alums teaching classes because they understand LSJ and how it works,” Ward said. “Kirsten also has a similar mentality to us and for one, she serves as a sense of inspiration of what you can do with an LSJ degree and even better, she’s bringing what she’s doing in the outside world and bringing it back to the classroom.”

This article was composed by Charlotte Anthony.