Criminology, Students

PhD Student Adam Vaughan Examines Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

June 23, 2014

Adam Vaughan, a graduate student in the School of Criminology, has begun his doctoral research tackling issues of policing and mental health in Canada.  Vaughan has observed after decades of cutbacks to mental health services in Canada, that now “mental health problems are too often dealt with by the police, but the police are simply a temporary solution to issues with roots in poverty, homelessness, and addiction.”  For Vaughan, “police have become street-level psychiatrists, default mental health providers…people are calling the police hundreds of times because there is no one else to call.  Not just in crisis, but for daily mental health issues as well.”  He sees this as an “extremely problematic task for police to do,” as they often lack sufficient training and resources for such work.

Vaughan first developed his interest in minority justice during his Master’s Degree at the University of Regina.  There he studied hate crime legislation in Canada, interviewing crown prosecutors in Saskatchewan about the strengths and weaknesses of sentencing laws. He moved to Vancouver in 2009 to work with SFU Professor Simon Verdun-Jones in the School of Criminology.  Verdun-Jones directed Vaughan towards studying the relationship between the mental health care system and the criminal justice system.

Vaughan sees mental health as existing on a wide spectrum where a “good number of Canadians are dealing with health, depression, or anxiety issues.”  Those with serious mental health issues “are generally not well organized and it is difficult to advocate on their behalf.”  Oftentimes support for those in need of assistance rests on informal networks of family and friends.  For Vaughan, this lack of resources becomes especially problematic during times of crisis, which is frequently the moment where people call for assistance.  First responders are then faced with the task of intake assessment and processing.  Vaughan notes that this problematic dynamic of crisis moment intake “coupled with stricter yes/no civil commitment laws, often leads to a cycling of mentally ill persons in and out of the criminal justice and healthcare system.”

Also problematic, Vaughan points out, is that people with mental illness are consistently over represented in the criminal justice system.  This is often due to inadequate resources, and it puts people in direct harm: “if mentally ill people are over represented in courts and prisons, chances are they are also dying, often as a result of suicide.”  Vaughan is careful to note that although the criminal justice system does have its challenges, there are people trying to make a difference.  The complexity is that “when it comes to mental illness there is only so much a system designed for safety and security can do for a health issue.  “It’s a fundamental issue, people with severe mental illness are in the criminal justice system and most of them shouldn’t be there in the first place,” he says.

In addition to working on his PhD, Vaughan is also a researcher at the Simulation Training and Exercise Collaboratory (SIMTEC) at the Justice Institute of BC.  This research project looks at the resources and training that first responders need to respond more effectively to psychosocial consequences of mass casualty events.  The research also examines what kinds of resources and training would help psychosocial practitioners and other community members in such instances.      

At SFU, Vaughan works with the Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies (ICURS), conducting research for his dissertation.  He hopes to “unearth the heterogeneity of folks who come into contact with police with a mental health issue,” which would potentially expose the urgent need for greater mental health resources in Canada.