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

8 Responses to "Bipolar Disorder Meets the Legal System"

  1. Jason   July 21, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    I am bi polar did not know what it was till i looked up the medication givin and research and to answer your question know u dont know most of the things happening its like u lose controle not understand dream from reality 2014 i went threw a bi polar episode and needed help i could even check myself in after driving around spending all i got i was arrested and was told to Beaker act me i woke up in the Infirmary what’s on my nose hurting and it felt like World rug Burns on the side of my cheeks 23 our lockdown and my family wasn’t allowed to see me for a month

  2. Anna Naumovski   November 5, 2016 at 6:07 am

    The bipolar “card” was used on me. It influenced a sentencing,when no law was broken.

  3. janis brownguardian   February 1, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    My son is also awaiting trail for a battery charge. I spoke with his PO, that he has due to writting bad checks, asking what she planned to recommend to the courts. She stated Prison. I asked if she were inclined to conside rehab since my son as a long history of substance abuse and mental illness. She flat said no and proceeded to tell me he has missed his PO meetings for the past 3 months and has gotten 5 driving on a suspend license. I asked her way wasn’t there a Violation of Probation on any of those acts. Her explaination was thst a driving on supended doesn’t alway warrent a VOP. FMayve not the first or second but the third or fourth. Come on is anyone doing their job.

  4. SL   November 24, 2014 at 8:52 am

    My son is currently incarcerated and awaiting trial. He has been diagnosed with manic bipolar disorder. He entered a church to seek refuge during a manic episode. The guard in the church did not want him there and proceeded to forcefully escort him out, even though he was told by staff he could come in. Trying to explain his need to stay, and the permission he was granted only made the security guard more determined to eject my son from the building. This made my son fearful for his life in his manic state and he began to fight back against the beating he received. The entire altercation is on tape. My son refused to press charges because he is not mentally capable of knowing what that jerk of a security guard did was wrong. However, the guard did press charges. So now my son sits in jail and his attorney is a public defender that could care less about his disease or his defense because he is a drop in the bucket. With not enough resources and too many to defend, it is an endless cycle. If only the legal system would take a more active role in the treatment, our legal system would not be so clogged with the mentally ill. My son has been charged with a myriad of crimes since he was diagnosed and always finds his way out of jail, on the street with 3 days of medication. He is basically told to sink or swim. Although he is my son and I love him dearly, he is too old to qualify for coverage under my health plan, and is too unpredictable to live with me and my other children. No one wants to step up and help. And so the cycle continues.

  5. Victoria♡   March 3, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    This article is ridiculous, regardless of your diagnoses you are still responsible and therefore accountable for your actions. If someone with bipolar murdered someone while manic they wouldn’t be given a “free pass” as it is worded here, more than likely they would be sectioned under the mental health act and placed into an institution or specialist prison. Also, since when does a mental illness mean a person does not understand basic rules and regulations as stated here – “if these individuals are arrested, they will suffer greater harm than the punishment warrants due to their lack of understanding”. It’s articles like this that increase the stigmatism towards people with mental illness since it suggests that people suffering from which may be allowed to just walk free after committing a crime. The article stigmatises in itself by even suggesting the idea. Unless you are the doctor or the law you have no say on the matter. In regards to this statement ” 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” Self fulfilling prophecy doesn’t apply when a person goes to a physician reporting feelings of anxiety or depression for example and to then be told, yes, you have an anxiety disorder/depression, why would someone act more anxious? How?! Cause their bodies to have this physiological response more often or more intently, it can’t happen. Absurd.

    • Dave   March 5, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      Incidentally, there are some good articles on this subject in the current issue of the Journal of the American Academy for Psychiatry and the Law.

    • Kyle   July 9, 2017 at 2:27 am

      You are so ignorant

  6. Richard Saville-Smith   March 3, 2014 at 2:31 am

    The data this article misses is an analysis of the actual seriousness of the criminality of bipolar people. If you are manic it is really not hard to get arrested – public order offences are inevitable in a disorderly state. But what crimes are bipolar people are actually committing – are they serious or trivial – can you find out?

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