To mark Mental Health Awareness week the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales Dame Vera Baird QC considers how we become kinder to victims of crime
This week is Mental Health Awareness week. The theme – kindness – could not be more apt at the moment.
Streets lined with houses with rainbow-filled windows, our weekly neighbourhood ‘clap for carers’, 100-year-old Captain (now Sir!) Tom Moore walking up and down his garden to raise £1,000 and capturing the nation’s hearts to the tune of more than £33m, and our key workers stoically doing their jobs though they may be putting themselves in harm’s way.
We’ve all seen the T-shirts emblazoned with ‘In a world where you can be anything – be kind.’ But kindness is more than a slogan – or a hashtag – and mental health awareness needs to be 52 weeks a year not just one.
What I hope is that this new-found compassion and community spirit does not wane but spreads to other areas of life as the threat from the virus recedes.
Institutional kindness, like that given to Covid-19 victims by our committed doctors and nurses, needs to be replicated in the way police, prosecutors and the courts treat victims of crime, especially the large numbers of victims who suffer from mental illness.
Mental illness has numerous forms and permeates every walk of life. The ‘Black Dog’ is a wanderer, happy to visit any social class, any neighbourhood, any community. He does not discriminate.
They wanted to look at the flip of the somewhat stereotypical idea that it is those with mental health issues who always pose the threat.
Their research showed that 45 percent of people with severe mental illness were victims of crime in the year prior to the report’s publication, that one in five such people had experienced a violent assault; and that people with severe mental illness were five times more likely to be a victim of assault, and three times more likely to be a victim of household crime, than people in the general population.
I know from my years spent working as a criminal barrister, as a Police and Crime Commissioner, and now as the Victims’ Commissioner just how daunting an experience being a victim can be.
People can feel targeted and think of themselves as less worthy, taking on their attacker’s judgment of them.
The impact can be significant for the steadiest and most healthy but imagine that kind of trauma on top of coping with mental ill health.
Police and prosecutors can easily side-line the mentally ill, assuming they will be unreliable witnesses – pre-judging them as less worthy.
If you were a victim of crime you would want to be treated as a valued individual, not as a stereotype.
Whoever you are, receiving proper support can re-boost your confidence to manage what has happened and help you to provide your best evidence.
When I speak to victims, they often tell me felt like an afterthought once they had reported a crime, that they weren’t kept informed, and that they received little help to understand the court process. Such disregard can sometimes be as undermining as the crime itself.
That is why I am so committed to ensuring that the current consultation on the Victims’ Code – which sets out the information, support and services that victims of crime are supposed to receive – and the Government’s proposed Victims’ Law are fit for purpose and truly put the victim at the heart of the criminal justice process.
People with mental health issues in particular are rarely enabled to play an active and valuable part in their case. Decisions and assumptions are made for, and about, them.
But it must be understood that good quality victim care can be as restorative as medical care is to those who are poorly.
Research shows that how victims are treated by the criminal justice system is at least as important as whether their assailant is convicted.
And if it also enables them to do their public duty to give evidence, then the kindness they have received serves us all.
Those who have mental ill health just need some extra non-judgmental kindness.
Surely we can offer that – this week and every week.