Name: Lorraine DeSoto
From: Ocala, FL
Dual Diagnosis in the Criminal Justice System
January 23, 2021
For most of my life I have struggled with my own Mental Illness. I discovered Mental Health Recovery and sought to make a difference for those like myself. I found my passion in the place which I least expected. I became a Certified Recovery Peer Specialist and in January of 2017 I was hired as a Forensic Peer Specialist. I had so many hesitations about this position, but something inside of me told me I could make a difference. My two biggest hesitations were that I had never used substances to cope with my illness and that I had only been arrested once on a minor charge. What could I possibly have to offer these clients in the realm of lived experience and understanding?
I learned very quickly that my experience with eating addiction helped me relate to the addiction aspect and that I really was not much different than my clients after all. My biggest advantage over them was that, growing up in New England I had access to services and resources that I never imagined that others in this country were denied. As I learned more about addiction, the legal system, and political disregard for Mental Health in Florida, which consistently falls between forty-eighth and fiftieth in the nation for Mental Health funding and services, I realized how vital these programs are to breaking the cycle of addiction and recidivism. To my dismay, I also learned rapidly that, for most of my clients who strived for permanent change, would end up returning to our program many times. We could assist them with getting treatment, medication, housing, employment, and their charges dropped. After the program ended for them all of their support, emotional and financial, went away.
The reality is that it costs less to buy a beer, a bottle, or an ounce of something else than it does to pay for medications or to see a mental health provider. With the lack of mental stability and sobriety, the house, the job, the income, and other means of survival disappear. They find themselves back in the legal system for drugs, trespassing, shoplifting, or assault. There are some, of course, who do not care but for those who really tried to change, the results reinforce their believe that there is no hope. They lose hope in themselves and a chance of living any other way.
Another sad fact is, that after so many misdemeanor convictions, that misdemeanor becomes a felony. Not only do they end up in prison without the mental health services that they desperately need, but now they have a felony charge on their record which hinders future housing, employment, and education opportunities. Jails and prisons are the new “asylums.” It is all due to a system that does not recognize that if we put more funding into community services, people would have access to mental health and/or substance abuse services before contact with law enforcement. If not before their first contact, then possibly preventing future contacts which will result in arrest.
So, where do I come in? My personal, work, and volunteer experience combined with my training and education in this field gives me the unique perspective, the ability to relate to this population, and the understanding that aftercare support services are the key to reducing recidivism and maintaining recovery. Our communities need these qualities, that few possess, to advocate for this forgotten population. Mental Illness is a crisis which needs to be addressed on a local, state, and federal level. So much emphasis and funding are put into substance abuse now but what if mental illness can be addressed prior to self-medication? We need to fight for more early intervention through education. We need to fight the stigma attached to mental illness. Who better to do it than someone who has lived with it? I have come out the other side. I have maintained mental health recovery. I may be older, but I have many years a head of me to change lives.
I genuinely believe that. by obtaining my Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Services, I will be able to be a voice for those who are most often rejected by their own families. I understand the hopelessness that comes from being sick and alone. These court diversion programs are all we have now until we can fix the system. I know that Florida is not the only state engaged in the endless battle for better services. If I can make a difference in my own community, I will do what it takes. I have the knowledge, desire, and passion. All I need now are the credentials necessary so that I can be given the opportunity. Thank you for your attention.