Bipolar and in Jail? How to Move Your Court Case to Mental Health Court

For those who are in jail for a behavior related to a bipolar disorder mood swing, mental health court could be a valuable resource.

Photo: Marilyn Nieves/Getty Images

By Julie A. Fast 


If you’re reading this blog from jail, you are not alone.  It’s not easy finding exact statistics regarding the number of people with mental health disorders who are in jail as estimates are between 20 and 60% depending on local jails vs. larger facilities, according to The Atlantic.  I do know that bp Magazine is read by people who are currently living behind bars, as I receive thank you letters for my column in the magazine.

When I look back on my life with bipolar disorder, especially before I was diagnosed, I’m lucky that I wasn’t arrested for a DUI, public drunkenness or road rage. It easily could have happened.  If I had continued with my life of untreated mood swings, I doubt it would have turned out very well.

I have worked closely with hundreds of families where a loved one has been arrested or is currently in jail due to a bipolar disorder episode (Well, let’s say an episode that is usually combined with substance use!). My first goal is always to show families how to find a mental health court in the county where the loved one was charged.

If you’re currently in jail and know that your behavior was due to a mood swing, my best advice is to make sure you’re being treated for a mental health related transgression. This doesn’t mean you get off any easier, but it does mean your future can be more stable and your record may be expunged sooner than if the violation were committed when you were stable.

Not all counties have mental health court, but if yours does, asking for your case to be transferred if applicable is essential.   I’ve seen this simple process completely change a person’s outlook on the future and change the way the violation is seen by family members and friends.

What does it mean to get your case heard in mental health court?

You need to show that your behavior was the result of a measurable mood swing. For example, let’s say you were manic and had not slept for three days, you were off your meds, and you started drinking and using weed due to the mania.  Then you got arrested for graffiti.  Asking your legal team to take your mental health into account is essential. I know this sounds like it happens normally, but in my experience and maybe if you are reading this from jail and in your experience, the majority of behaviors are seen as transgressions and not mental health episodes. It will be up to you and your team to show that bipolar disorder was a factor if you have not done so already.

Create a one page letter for the judge including the following information:

  1. Your current diagnosis and treatment, including any medications you currently take.
  2. A list of the charges against you.
  3. A short explanation of your state of mind during the time of the charges in relation to your diagnosis.
  4. A bulleted list of the symptoms you were experiencing at the time of the charges.
  5. A short request that your charges and your case if applicable be moved to mental health court so that treatment can be a part of the sentencing process.

This will only work if you are willing to make the changes a mental health court judge recommends. But I can tell you, it’s life changing if you do decide to take this course.

How do I know so much about all of this? A friend, a former district attorney, started one of the first mental health courts in the United States and I was lucky enough to learn from him and watch him in action on his open court days.  I then became a coach for family members and have helped many people in a court and mental health entwined situation.

You are not alone if you committed a violation during a mood swing. I wish you luck and hope that you can find a way to incorporate mental health management into any sentence you are currently serving.






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