Does Justice Mind?


By Pema Doornenbal

The Justice for All report highlights the importance of putting people at the center of justice. This requires understanding their justice problems and includes being responsive to who they are and what they need. People-centered justice services meet people ‘as they are’ and seek ways to empower them to resolve their justice problems effectively.

This guest blog in our Justice for All series, written by Pema Doornenbal, summarizes the findings of his new policy paper Does Justice Mind? He looks at the impact of (negative) interactions with justice actors on mental health, as well as the fact that many justice problems negatively affect people’s mental health, which impacts how people approach justice actors and what they need.

Photo: Clay Banks / Unsplash

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” — Desmond Tutu

Traumatic events like police violence or stressful interactions with justice actors, can lead to serious mental health problems. And people with mental health issues are already more likely to interact with justice systems.

Data shows that significant parts of populations from all around the globe experience negative mental health: 26% of adult Americans, 25% of German adults, one in six South Africans, and one in seven Indians suffer from mental health issues.

If we put people at the center of justice systems, and we know a significant number of people face mental health issues, we need to systemize this into our thinking and work.

There is ample evidence and data in high-income countries of how traumatic interactions with justice systems often lead to mental health issues. Or how justice problems, including criminal, civil, and administrative problems, have a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people and communities. It is also encouraging that research increasingly shows that addressing people’s justice needs has a positive impact on their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.

At the same time, there is little evidence or research on these matters in low- and middle-income countries.

If we want responsive justice solutions, we should consider mental health and psychosocial wellbeing when we seek to address people’s justice needs. In doing so, justice systems and actors can better prevent and resolve people’s justice problems. In this blog, I reflect on two dimensions and provide several examples to promote the further integration of mental health and psychosocial support in justice strategies and programming.

Justice and Mental Health

Firstly, people’s interaction with justice actors can have a negative effect on the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of individuals and communities.

Research shows that 39% of US citizens with legal problems experienced a negative impact on their mental health. Interviews with people recruited by violent extremist groups in African countries, demonstrated that 71% of them had mental health issues triggered by actions from justice actors, such as the arrest or killing of a family member. Research compiled in the policy paper shows how police violence and oppressive interactions can lead to traumas, stress disorders, depression, and suicidal attempt. These impacts affect not only those experiencing it firsthand, but also communities observing the violence.

Incarcerated youth are at high risk for poor social and behavioral development. Female survivors of domestic or sexual violence may find it difficult or intimidating to deal with male-dominated law enforcement and justice system agencies. Revictimization leads to serious mental health issues too.

Secondly, justice problems are often harmful for people’s mental health, especially when they last long, escalate, or remain unresolved. Also, mental health issues are often a cause for interaction with justice systems, pointing to a vicious cycle.

Justice systems are broader than criminal justice alone, and mental health issues go beyond engagements with criminal justice systems. Debts, evictions, and parental separation are just three of many other examples of justice problems with implications on one’s wellbeing.

In Chile, symptoms of depression are higher for those who are over-indebted and in the US high financial debts are associated with higher perceived stress and depression, worse self-reported health, and higher blood pressure.

Evictions, and the threat of losing a home, have severe negative impact on people’s wellbeing. In Spain, after the 2008 economic crisis hit hard, people who couldn’t afford their rent or mortgage and were being evicted, were more likely to have poor physical and mental health.

Parental separation and divorce opens the possibility for people to leave dysfunctional and abusive marriages and healthy divorces can lead to positive change for children. At the same time, research shows that children from separated parents are over-represented in the mental health system. Due to their adversarial model on divorces, justice systems can lead to further escalation of conflicts surrounding divorce, with negative impact on all those involved, especially children.

What works around the world

There are successful examples to learn from. Access to justice centers in Argentina, one stop centers in the Palestine, centers for victims in Colombia and El Salvador, and maisons de justice in the Sahel deal with justice needs and mental health issues in an integrated way. South Sudan’s specialized Gender-Based Violence Court offers psychosocial support and a Colombian court ordered psychosocial programs for former child soldiers. Justice systems increasingly focus on meeting children’s justice needs and take into account their brain and socio-emotional development.

Fair and effective justice journeys are critical for building and maintaining trust in societies. Only by understanding how people interact with justice systems and actors we can provide services to help achieve fair outcomes. Mental health and psychosocial support should be part of this understanding.

In doing so, justice systems and actors can go upstream and find out why people are falling in the river. And we need evidence from all over the world to prove this.

Pema Doornenbal is currently Human Rights Policy Officer at the Human Rights, Transitional Justice, and Rule of Law Service with the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Prior to joining the mission, he worked with the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just, and Inclusive Societies and the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Justice for All.