PEOPLE WITH a mental illness are among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the NSW Community, according to a report released by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW last week.
On the Edge of Justice: the Legal Needs of People with a Mental Illness in NSW, states that people with a mental illness have lower levels of education and employment, housing arrangements that are less stable, and higher levels of poverty than the general population.
The Law and Justice Foundation’s research series, of which On The Edge Of Justice is the sixth report, concentrates on the relationship between mental illness and other forms of disadvantage. The series aims to identify the legal issues and needs of disadvantaged demographic groups.
Foundation researchers consulted widely with legal and non-legal service providers and interviewed many people with a mental illness who shared first-hand their experiences of the legal system.
The report identified legal issues as, among others, the Mental Health Act, discrimination, housing and social security, employment, consumer issues, domestic violence and family law.
However, there are many barriers people with a mental illness face when dealing with legal problems. They include a heightened susceptibility to stress; fear and intimidation during the legal process; cognitive impairment causing problems with comprehension, organisation and time management; and communication problems.
“A very significant barrier is the negative perception of people with mental illness within our society. Too often people with a mental illness are considered to lack credibility, and this occurs both in the general community and the legal system,” Geoff Mulherin, director of the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, said.
Equally important is the failure to identify an existing mental illness, he said. “It is not always apparent that a person has a mental illness, and some people are very reluctant or embarrassed to disclose it for fear again of the existing social stigma and the negative perceptions of their credibility.”
The report includes suggestions to help overcome such barriers, including appropriate education and training for legal service providers to improve their awareness and understanding of the needs of people with a mental illness.