Bipolar Disorder Meets the Legal System

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis that presents with episodes of mania and depression. This condition can also be known as manic-depression. It is a brain disorder that causes unusual changes in mood, energy, and routine activities. Symptoms can be moderate to severe, but must fall under the guidelines within the psychiatric diagnostic manual. In the DSM-5, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder first requires the occurrence of at least one manic, or mixed state, during the patient’s lifetime, and due to this pattern of interval-moods it is known as a cyclic disorder. The DSM is a powerful tool because most, if not all, clinicians use it for diagnosing patients. For this reason, people with bipolar disorder can often meet breaks within the legal system ordinary people cannot. This issue has been under debate for decades within the United States.

Recent court reports allege the famous Chris Brown’s behavioral problems are due to bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder. A mental health diagnosis sometimes gives people this justification for criminal activity. Not all sufferers are given a free pass out of jail, however, as many jurisdictions do not give legal leniency to mentally ill people. United States correctional institutions are estimated to be holding over 1 million men and women with serious mental illnesses, as reported by the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law. This is a percentage of “seven to 16” sufferers currently behind bars.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes bipolar with specific characteristics. People with this illness usually develop the signs in their late teens or early adulthood. Half of all cases start before the age of 25, and some people show symptoms as early as childhood. This is a condition that can also be too easily diagnosed, as many doctors and therapists are reporting this illness with undue frequency. Once a person meets the criteria for bipolar disorder, there is availability for medical treatment the legal system previously would not allow a patient to receive.

Occasionally, clinicians are forced to give a diagnosis to a patient in order to give that patient prescription treatment, and this is mainly for insurance or legal purposes. The War on Drugs mandates adherence to strict codes. A person going to a psychiatrist for insomnia, or anxiety, will then have to be stigmatized with a diagnosis before obtaining treatment. This can cause a self-fulfilling prophecy to occur, but it can also give the person the ability to get off of a criminal charge if that jurisdiction provides criminals leniency for mental health conditions.

Mental health care could be one of the greatest tools to combat crime. Clinical Psychiatry News alleges that men with mental illnesses are four times more likely to get arrested than the general population. Women, however, are eight times more likely, states Georgia Stathopoulou, Ph.D., but should people with mental illness get a free pass out of an arrest? This is apparently up to the officer, and sometimes a jury.

A person with a diagnosed mental disorder could be viewed as not in control of his or her own body, and therefore not able be held accountable to their crime. Furthermore, many allege that if these individuals are arrested, they will suffer greater harm than the punishment warrants due to their lack of understanding.

Others contend that every person should be held accountable for their actions, even if they are mentally disturbed, mentally challenged, or suffering from other mental illnesses. This position yields to the fear that if one person is able to get off of a charge by “playing dumb” the whole criminal justice system will be vulnerable to deceit. It is already a game of chance when questioning a person’s capability of standing trial, or giving a defendant the “Twinkie defense,” which is simply lying or making up an excuse for the person who committed the crime. The legal system often requires people to meet specific criteria before facing sentencing of the crime they committed, but with a mental diagnosis like bipolar disorder, people might not have to face punishment.

Opinion By Lindsey Alexander


Brown University DSM
Rolling Stone