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Val Villeneuve talks about mental illness and prisons

Psychiatric nursing and forensic expert takes your questions on mental illness and the prison system

Globe and Mail Update

Canada's provincial jails and federal prisons are home to a burgeoning number of offenders with mental disorders, many of them repeat offenders — so-called frequent fliers, Dawn Walton writes in Thursday's Globe and Mail. Many have diagnoses ranging from depression and schizophrenia to anti-social personality disorder and psychosis, and may also be addicted to alcohol or drugs, she writes.

"What we're seeing is a criminalization of the mentally ill," said Val Villeneuve, director of forensic psychiatry services in southern Alberta, who has been working with offenders for 30 years. "It's not a sexy topic. People don't want to hear about these crazies and criminals. It's a double stigma to be a criminal and mentally ill — the mad and the bad."

A 2006/07 report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator, long-time federal Ombudsman Howard Sapers, said the number of people in federal prisons with mental illnesses has nearly doubled in the past decade, while according over that same period, the incarceration rate has barely budged.

Twelve per cent of federally imprisoned men had a mental disorder in 2007, up from 7 per cent in 1997. Meanwhile, 21 per cent of incarcerated women were mentally ill, up from 13 per cent over the same period. And while stats are scant for provincial jails, experts say the mental-illness rates there are likely much higher.

How should the system treat people with mental illness who run afoul of the law? Are there solutions? What do you think? We're pleased to have Ms. Villeneuve joining us now for a discussion on mental illness and the justice system. Send your questions now and join us then to read her answers, which will appear at the bottom of this page.

Val Villeneuve is the director of the Calgary Health Region Forensic Mental Health Services, which encompass all inpatient and outpatient clinics in Southern Alberta.

Ms. Villeneuve has 30 years of psychiatric nursing and forensic experience. She has been awarded three Provincial Psychiatric Nursing awards in the past 10 years for excellence in the profession.

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Dawn Walton, globeandmail.com writes: Hello Ms. Villeneuve and thanks for joining us today. I had a couple of questions before we get to those from our readers.

To start, once an offender is referred to you, what kind of treatment is available to help them with their underlying mental health issues? With the number of mentally ill offenders ever rising, how do you measure success?

Val Villeneuve: It is important to know that I deal with provincial forensic services, when patients (offenders) are referred to our service it is for assessment of their mental health and if it affects their ability to understand the justice system.

Our services will observe, gather information and formulate recommendations to the courts prior to a plea being entered or for the purpose of a pre-sentence report. Treatment is also provided to the patient if they are show symptoms of mental illness (i.e. Bipolar or Schizophrenia).

We tend to measure success by seeing improvement in a patient's mental status and to overall functioning while attending our inpatient or outpatient departments. Keeping track of recidivisms both in the justice system and mental health admissions also assist us in measurement.

Dawn Walton writes: Can you suggest better ways for the justice system to deal with mentally ill offenders once they come into conflict with the law?

Val Villeneuve: This is a different question as each community may deal very differently with the acceptance and non-acceptance of mentally ill offenders. In Southern Alberta, many stakeholders are involved in trying to ensure patients receive proper access and treatment. Example - The Calgary Health Region forensic services work closely with the Calgary Remand Centre and Young Offender Centre to ensure persons suffering from mental illness see a psychiatrist and/or other mental Health professionals. One suggestion I have is increased collaboration of mental health professionals is sought to reduce the stigma of a patient who has come into conflict with the law. As well, Calgary has developed successful diversion program that assists in diverting low risk minor offenders experiencing mental illness to be assisted in the community as apposed to the correctional system.

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