When Jennay Ghowrwal was a junior in college, she noticed her mom – once scholarly and determined – starting to act paranoid and erratic. She started suffering from delusions that Ghowrwal and her brother were plotting conspiracies against her. She believed the CIA was controlling her children’s brains. Ghowrwal couldn’t figure out what was happening to her mom, but she knew her life was falling apart.
Years later, at 57, her mom was diagnosed with late-onset schizophrenia.
When her mom refused any type of treatment, Ghowrwal looked into requirements for involuntary treatment, but discovered it wasn’t an option. It wasn’t until her mother was a danger to herself – once threatening to burn down the house – that Ghowrwal could get her into involuntary treatment.
When Ghowrwal began her masters at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, she “started to see the elegant simplicity in a public health approach. It allows you to consider the humanity of people in different situations, especially those facing a mental health challenge,” says Ghowrwal.
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 with her mom’s mental health disorder – 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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