by Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, Broward County Court Judge, 17th Judicial Circuit
“Rejecting stigma in favor of equality and human dignity is the essence of social justice.” – Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to share the top 5 lessons I have learned as a Mental Health Court Judge. Broward’s Mental Health Court, the first in the nation, is dedicated to the decriminalization of people arrested with serous mental illness and neurological disorders, offering treatment over jail.
1) The power of dignity: When Broward County began its Court in 1997, we hoped our problem solving court would be successful. If nothing else, the court would take aim at dispelling stigma, target trauma and work to restore personhood. The first and vital lesson is that dignity and respect is its own force. Dignity dispels fear and levels the playing field. Ultimately the promotion of dignity becomes a reflection of the integrity of court process, the protection of legal rights and promotion of human rights.
2) The value of listening: The theory of therapeutic jurisprudence is built upon the principals of procedural justice. Meaning, if a court experience is to be perceived as fair and positive, no matter the outcome. A court participant’s experience should include the belief that his/her voice has been heard. Yet, active listening is difficult. It requires a non-judgmental way of receiving information and communicating. If a judge is sincere about humanizing justice, then soft skills, such as humility, empathy and a willingness to acknowledge the strengths of others must be mastered and applied. The value of heartfelt listening is deep and transformative. It drives trust, enhanced intuitive thinking and ultimately strengthens complex decision-making. It is a core element of problem solving justice.
3) Laughter heals: Over the years, our court team has laughed a lot. It is often the unexpected and profound comments that court participants share. Their gratitude for the court process and ways in which that is expressed and demonstrated is at times incredible. The lesson is, that even in the midst of great challenge, laughter is magical. Laughter heals, binds the human experience and reminds us how fortunate we are to do this work.
4) Hope is tangible: So many families come to court in extreme despair, fear and frustration. Bridges have been burned, trust violated and relationships broken. Family members often do not believe there is hope for their loved ones with serious mental illness and co-occurring disorders. Under-funded and fragmented community mental health care and social service systems may have failed them. Yet, with the support and judicially led explanation of the goals and structural process of the court, hope emerges. The lesson, is that hope is much more than a concept or a feeling. It brings the future into the now – and in that moment, life can begin again.
5) Treatment works: One of the greatest lessons of the mental health court is that treatment works. That true recovery is possible if a person is linked with proper care and supports and willing to commit to recovery and to manage his or her health. Together, working in partnership we have seen tens of thousands of people with a wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders, and other medical, social and economic problems, embrace their lives and dreams. The overarching lesson is that person-centered treatment works and recovery real. The lesson, if our policy makers and leaders resolve to prioritize behavioral health as essential to overall health in America. That we can achieve the promise of wellness and enhanced public safety. Moreover, as a matter of justice, we can end the inappropriate criminalization of people with serious mental illness in America.