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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Help for Veterans Involved in the Justice System

By: Samuel Hargrove, 2nd Vice Chair of the NAMI Veteran and Military Council and LTC Kenny Allred, U.S. Army (Ret.), Chair of the NAMI Veteran and Military Council and a former deputy sheriff

Mental Health Challenges Faced by Veterans

Mental health and addiction problems can be the unfortunate results of life circumstances; for veterans of the United States Armed Forces, this is particularly true.

Many warriors' lives are not the typical white picket fence, hotdog, baseball and apple pie. The aforementioned lifestyle is what many seek and far too many do not obtain. Their lives are filled with acronyms such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety, depression, drug addiction, substance abuse and many other illnesses or injuries sustained during their service in the military. Today, an estimated 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD or major depression and about one in six have a substance abuse condition.

These warriors signed a contract with the United States government and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. In doing so, they dedicated their lives to the needs of the government. They became highly trained in how to eliminate enemies and win wars. The United States is very effective at training individuals to fight and win wars; however, we are not as effective at supporting individuals when they return from war or training for war.

The act of taking a human life is unnatural, even when justified by the needs of war. Upon returning from war, warriors have internal struggles, which manifest in anxiety, post-traumatic stress, self-medication and self-injury, which oftentimes evolves into a substance abuse condition.

Mental illnesses and substance abuse conditions are the result of of the experiences a veteran had in service to his or her country. Therefore, these individuals have the right to support and treatment, like they would receive for a physical injury. If a veteran is diagnosed with a mental illness or they have a substance abuse condition, these individuals should be treated for the illness and delivered back to their homes and families as healthy as possible.

How Veterans Get Involved with the Justice System

While most veterans do well when they return home, those with mental health and substance abuse conditions are at a higher risk for encountering police and being arrested.

Law enforcement officers and service members are trained to make their own safety a top priority and both are trained in the use of violence to complete the mission if necessary. Unfortunately, often both the service member and the law enforcement officer can be traumatized by their duties. When two highly trained (and often, armed) professionals encounter each other in a difficult or frightening situation, either one can overreact in fear and escalate the situation. The outcome can be deadly.

When trauma or substance abuse is combined with inappropriate behavior or law breaking, it's even more important that the responding officer is patient and tries to de-escalate the situation. Many law enforcement officers seem to have an innate ability to de-escalate and peacefully resolve a potential deadly encounter, but, unfortunately, an increasing number of interactions with veterans result in use of force or arrest.

A veteran living with mental health issues, including posttraumatic stress disorder, may actually attempt to provoke a police officer to shoot him--a tragic scenario called suicide by cop. The more that law enforcement officers can understand what a veteran might be experiencing, the better they can respond safely in this kind of situation. 

Police and Courts can Help Veterans involved in the Justice System

Fortunately there are ways to help keep both veterans and police safe while helping veterans get mental health care and stay out of jail.

NAMI Affiliates around the country are involved in a crisis intervention team (CIT) programs that bring together law enforcement, mental health providers and advocates to improve safety during law enforcement encounters with people in crisis. CIT programs also help officers identify a person who might need mental health treatment and help them get care instead of being arrested. Many CIT programs work closely with veteran service providers and the VA to link veterans in crisis with mental health services. There are 2,800 CIT programs around the country, but many more communities need these important programs.

In many cases, if mental health resources aren't available or if the veteran commits a crime, the police will have to make an arrest. An estimated 700,000 veterans in the U.S. are under criminal justice supervision (either in jail or prison or being supervised by probation or parole). A program called the Veteran Treatment Court (VTC) can help many of these veterans early on in their involvement with the system. These courts recognize and appreciate the service of veterans to their nation and help them stay out of jail and get treatment and structure to put their lives back on track. These courts also provide veteran mentors who can help court participants re-adjust to civilian life.  Organizations like the National Association of Drug Court Professionals provide support to Veterans Treatment Courts

Learn More at the NAMI Convention

Helping justice-involved veterans is a priority of the NAMI Veterans and Military Council. At the 2014 NAMI national convention, the Council will be hosting a special session on interventions that can help veterans stay out of the justice system and get the services and support they need. To learn more or to register for the conference, visit www.nami.org/convention.

For further information on veteran treatment courts, addictive behavior and mental illness, please review the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, Justice for Vets or the SAMHSA's GAINS Center's Jail Diversion and Trauma Recovery Program.

Photo: Flickr / Virginia Guard Public Affairs

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