Medicine, Science, and the Law

Knowledge of evidence-based practices for PTSD among mental health court judges

Mental health courts offer access to community-based care for defendants with psychiatric disorders, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, limited information is available on how judges make treatment decisions about evidence-based practices. In this qualitative study, we interviewed mental health court judges to evaluate: (1) perspectives toward the role of PTSD in criminal behavior; (2) knowledge about evidence-based practice for PTSD; (3) treatment decisions for defendants with PTSD; and (4) treatment decisions for defendants at risk for suicide, a common comorbidity with PTSD. We hypothesized that mental health court judges would report low familiarity with evidence-based practices for PTSD despite wide recognition of the impact of trauma on criminal behavior. Methods: Mental health court judges (N = 11, 60% women, 60% between 50-59 years) were recruited from 7 states in the US and completed a demographics questionnaire and semi-structured qualitative interview that was transcribed and double-coded. Results: Judges in mental health court unanimously agreed that PTSD is highly prevalent among their defendants, but that they had not having received formal education about evidence-based practices for PTSD. They reported relying on their team members to provide recommendations for treatment planning and viewed their role as the enforcer of the treatment teams’ suggestions. Finally, judges also reported that suicide prevention is an important consideration and that there is a need for universal suicide risk assessments. Conclusions: These findings have implications for continuing education among judges in mental health court, and we recommend mandated training to increase awareness of evidence-based practices for PTSD and suicide prevention.