Dr. Andrew Haag to Present Findings on Mental Health Courts at 5th Biennial Alberta Criminal Justice Symposium

Edmonton Mental Health Court (EMHC) has been operating for a little more than a year now.

01 April 2019

Edmonton Mental Health Court (EMHC) has been operating for a little more than a year now.

The court - the first of its kind in Alberta - offers a therapeutic, collaborative, healing-based alternative to the traditional punitive judicial model in cases where an accused person's mental health issues are deemed to have played a role in the charges against them.

Four Provincial Court Judges - including Assistant Chief Judge Larry Anderson, who played a key role in launching the special court - preside over EMHC. They're assisted by Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Rodd, Lead Psychiatrist for EMHC, as well as a Social Worker and Legal Aid Navigator.

Although EMHC is unique in Alberta, there are 47 mental health courts across Canada, and many more in the U.S., where the first such court was established in the late 1990s.
Yet, until now, there have been few attempts to assess the effectiveness or outcomes of these courts in any comprehensive way.

Enter Dr. Andrew Haag, an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, a Sessional Instructor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta, and the Director of Forensic Research for AHS's Northern Alberta Forensic Psychiatry Service at Alberta Hospital Edmonton. The U of A and AHS have been key partners in the Justice-led initiative to research the EMHC.

On May 8th, at the 5th Biennial Alberta Criminal Justice Symposium at Grant MacEwan University, Dr. Haag will discuss the findings of an extensive review of the academic literature on mental health courts across North America.

"It's surprising how many mental health courts we now have (in Canada), but we're really the first persons that I know of who have systematically tried to examine the impact of these alternative or diversion courts," says Dr. Haag.

His presentation to the symposium is titled: A Review of Mental Health Courts in North America: Where Are We At?

"When Edmonton Mental Health Court was established last year, funding was also provided by the Alberta government to research the workings and outcomes of the court. As a first step since then, we've conducted a pretty thorough review of the literature on these courts in general, and we'll soon publish our findings in a journal," he says.

Tyler Dunford, a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta, assisted Dr. Haag in his research. Dr. Andrew Greenshaw, Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Psychiatry at the U of A, also consulted on the project.

"We're almost ready to start interviewing people on the front lines of the mental health courts. By that I mean persons who are using the mental health court or are accused in mental health court, and we'll compare that to the treatment they'd get in typical docket court," says Dr. Haag.

"But when I'm talking at the Alberta Criminal Justice Symposium, I'll be discussing our review of mental health courts across Canada, and comparing that to mental health courts in the U.S."

The U.S. initiated the concept of mental health court, with the first such court established in Florida in the late 1990s. Canada's first mental health court was launched in Toronto shortly thereafter.

Today, mental health courts exist in many large - and some small - communities across Canada. Some major centres, such as Calgary, still don't have a mental health court, however.

"We'll look at the crimes or events that brought accused persons to the court in the first place. But mental health court should also be a place where your mental health needs are considered, with the goal of reducing recidivism and improving mental health outcomes - or to put it in more colloquial language, to stop the revolving door," says Dr. Haag.

On that score, his assessment thus far is a positive one.

"Generally speaking, our research shows that if people make it through mental health court successfully, and make use of the services available to them, they will experience reduced recidivism. That's one of our general findings. And if someone doesn't make it through mental health court successfully, they typically don't do as well," he says.

So how would he explain that?

"I would attribute that to the court itself, to the court meaningfully addressing the person's needs - in this case their mental health needs - but also their needs in a more global sense. The court wouldn't just look at the individual's mental health needs, they'd also look at related issues like substance abuse or homelessness. This kind of hands-on approach is common in mental health courts," he explains.

"We're hoping that as a result of this research, we can present a clearer picture of how mental health courts can be most beneficial, within the context of the overall criminal justice system. That's our goal - to assist as many people as possible to enjoy better lives. Ultimately that's in everybody's best interests."