When Jennay Ghowrwal was a junior in college, she noticed that someone close to her – once scholarly and determined –began acting paranoid and erratic. The person started suffering from delusions that Ghowrwal and others were plotting conspiracies and that the CIA was controlling the brains of other loved ones. Ghowrwal couldn’t figure out what was happening, but she knew the person’s life was falling apart. Years later the behavior was explained with a diagnosis – late-onset schizophrenia.
Ghowrwal learned that involuntary treatment is not an option when someone refuses treatment. It wasn’t until her loved one was a danger– once threatening to burn down the house – that Ghowrwal could invoke involuntary treatment.
During her masters, Ghowrwal worked as a research and development consultant for healthcare providers and nonprofits. She found that contact with the criminal justice system was nearly inevitable for many people struggling with mental health disorders. This – along with the experience trying to access mental health treatment for someone she cared about – drove Ghowrwal to study criminology and criminal justice, focusing on the intersection of the criminal justice system and mental health.
“There’s a significant break in a patient’s care if they have a run-in with the criminal justice system. The idea kept settling in for me that all the things that were hurting people in the criminal justice system were making for an enormously worse situation for mental health care,” says Ghowrwal.
In the weeks after someone is criminally charged, they will encounter countless police officers, corrections officers, and court representatives. None of these people are advocates for the defendant. Defense attorneys, particularly public defenders, are the first – and often only – advocate within the criminal justice system for the incarcerated. But these attorneys lack the specific and substantive training to represent and interact with someone facing a mental health challenge, which account for 40 percent of Maryland public defenders’ clients in 2017, estimates Ghowrwal.
As an OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow, Ghowrwal will establish REMIND (Recognizing and Engaging Mental Health in Indigent Defense) to improve the experiences of indigent criminal defendants facing mental health challenges by training defense attorneys to better communicate with and advocate for them.
Ghowrwal will develop a client-centered training curriculum to teach defense attorneys – particularly those defending clients with a mental health challenge – communication techniques, ethical considerations, and legal techniques. Ghowrwal will consult with community advocates, past public defender clients who self-identify as having experienced mental health challenges, public defenders, social workers and clinicians to develop the curriculum.
“The focus of the training is to teach attorneys about what their clients are experiencing,” says Ghowrwal. “These attorneys work to respect and assert the humanity of people that have typically been written off. It’s an enormous gesture to someone facing a mental health challenge.”
Ghowrwal hopes REMIND will become a training model across Maryland. “I’m committed to making this a high-quality and responsive training. In the future, I’d like to see this adapted for the private bar and eventually be a standard for public defenders. We’re at a good time politically and socially to shine a light on the inequalities in the criminal justice system and the important work of public defenders as advocates for vulnerable members of our community,” says Ghowrwal.
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