Law Symposium Examines Psychology and Mental Health

The Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy hosted a symposium on Friday that examined how mental-health issues are treated in the legal system.

The symposium, titled “The Legal and Ethical Implications of Psychology and Mental Health,” included presentations from Amanda Zelechoski, an assistant professor of psychology at Valparaiso University; Victor Quintanilla, an associate professor of law at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University; and Deborah Denno, a professor of law and founding director of the Neuroscience and Law Center at Fordham University School of Law.

“The journal chose the topics of psychology and mental health last year, noting the justice-oriented policy concerns and the growing importance of interdisciplinary research,” said Daniel Harting, 3L, the journal’s editor-in-chief.

“We were thrilled to host such a talented panel that used different approaches to underscore the importance of psychology and cognitive science,” Harting said. “The panelists’ interdisciplinary approaches are vital to ensuring our legal system is able to appropriately handle issues related to mental health.”

Stephen F. Smith, a professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, noted in the symposium’s opening remarks that the process of “deinstitutionalization” closed many psychiatric hospitals starting in the 1960s and ’70s, but the process didn’t replace the hospitals with community treatment centers that effectively reached people with mental illnesses.

The result has been that jails are housing more people with mental illnesses – often for nonviolent offenses, such as disorderly conduct or trespassing.

“I never liked the term ‘deinstitutionalization’ because it only captures that first move – the move from mental hospitals out into the community,” Smith said. “The real move, which the term doesn’t capture, is from society to prison. The largest mental-health institutions in this country are not hospitals, they are jails.”

Zelechoski obtained a bachelor’s degree at the University of Notre Dame before going on to earn a juris doctor at Villanova University and master’s and doctoral degrees at Drexel University. She said it’s important for attorneys to remember that the courtroom can be an anxiety-inducing space for people who are not accustomed to interacting with the legal system.

She talked about steps that attorneys can take to prepare clients and witnesses before trials. She also noted that something as simple as the continuance of a trial can be traumatizing for a person with mental illness.

“How can you minimize the likelihood of your client being re-traumatized by participating in the legal process? How can you make this process less terrifying for individuals who are experiencing mental-health issues? One way is to look around – try to see the courtroom through your client’s eyes,” Zelechoski said.