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Building Understanding at the Intersection of Law and Psychiatry

“The Weaver Institute is actually the reason I came to UC Law, and I know that my law school education would not have been the same without it.” Olivia Luerhmann

For nearly two decades, students at the Cincinnati Law have been exploring the spaces where the not-so-disparate fields of law and psychiatry intersect, taking advantage of a rather unique opportunity offered by the college.

Dr. Glenn M. Weaver, who started at the law school in 1986 as an adjunct professor, founded the Institute of Law and Psychiatry in 1998 with the intention of furthering the understanding between the two fields.

“It is such a unique experience that very few law students are able to have across the nation,” said 3L student and Weaver Fellow Olivia Luehrmann in an email. “The Weaver Institute is actually the reason I came to UC Law, and I know that my law school education would not have been the same without it.”

Each spring, first-year law students can apply to be a Weaver Fellow, and are chosen based on academic merit, school performance and a demonstrated interest in mental health law. Beginning in the fall of 2016, the fellowship will be open to “uniquely qualified” law students who are beginning their first year, says James Hunt, the Administrative Director of the Weaver Institute.

Coursework Builds Understanding

Once chosen, Weaver Fellows are required to take three courses: Law and Psychiatry, which is a course open to all law students; Mental Health Law I and Mental Health Law II, both of which are open only to Weaver Fellows and taken in conjunction with the Medical School's Forensic Psychiatry Fellows.

“It is a very enlightening and symbiotic experience,” said 2L student and Weaver Fellow John D. Elleman in an email. “The law students, such as myself, and the doctors help one another learn and understand the different perspectives involved.”

“Professor Stephani [who teaches Mental Health Law I & II] is very passionate in instilling a sense of respect for the autonomy of the client,” said 3L Weaver Fellow Lacey Brewster.

Outside the classroom, Weaver Fellows further their understanding of law and psychiatry by attending monthly gatherings of the Forensic Psychiatry Journal Club. Weaver Fellows and Forensic Psychiatry Fellows attend the dinners, along with law professors, practicing attorneys, psychiatrists, psychologists, and, occasionally, magistrates, philosophers and mental health patients and advocates—discussing the latest research and trends.

“It is an amazing experience to be invited to the table (quite literally) in a discussion of recent research and issues in forensic psychiatry with such a broad and respected array of local professionals,” said Elleman. v

Community Works Builds Experience

Beginning in the spring of their second year, Weaver Fellows start the community placement portion of their fellowship. Structured as an independent research project, fellows work for two semesters with areas of the community where law and psychiatry intersect.

For her first semester of community placement, Brewster worked in the Competency Restoration Unit at the Summit Behavioral Healthcare. She would sit in on meetings, shadow psychiatrists, look through forensic files and review legal analyses—all activities geared toward determining if a patient was competent enough to stand trial.

“It amazed me some of the stuff you and I would take for granted,” said Brewster. “I ultimately got a very good perspective of what a client’s life would be like going through competency restoration.”

In her second semester of community placement, Brewster shadowed a social worker working with the Veterans Affairs Justice Outreach Program, which involved reaching into the legal system to find and help veterans in need, says Brewster.

Brewster sat in on Therapeutic Treatment Courts, which differ from regular trial courts. The court personnel constituted a treatment team, which met an hour before the trial to identify and discuss therapeutic needs of the defendant, who in these cases was a veteran. The defendant would then arrive to further discuss treatment options.

“I think that it addresses underlying needs of people more over just putting them in a box,” said Brewster. “And usually,” she continued, “that’s going to be more effective in the long run.”

Experience Gives Insight and Perspective

John Elleman is currently doing his community placement project at the Butler County Probate Court during Magistrate Patricia Hider’s civil commitment docket. So far, he says, he’s spent a lot of time in and out of court with the Magistrate, as well as with the prosecutor who represents the Mental Health Board. He also has plans to spend some time with the probate court monitor, respondent’s counsel and a forensic psychiatrist.

Though Elleman plans on practicing criminal law, a path different from the work he’s doing with Magistrate Hider, he says his time there has offered him insights that have changed his perspective in terms of how he views legal issues.

“Now, when I see criminal cases, particularly misdemeanors, I am much more likely to look at the defendant and consider whether there is potentially underlying mental health issues that may be affecting the defendant’s behavior,” says Elleman. “If instead of sending someone like that to jail for short stays behind bars, getting them psychiatric help may address the underlying issues once and for all, and break the cycle of deviant behavior, court dates, and jail time.”

For Olivia Luehrmann’s first semester of community involvement, she split her time between two areas, spending the first half of the semester observing Judge John Andrew West’s mental health docket.

Luehrmann says mental health dockets are a fairly new concept, in which eligible defendants are transferred from normal criminal court dockets to specialized ones, where they are treated for their specific illnesses, assigned case workers and treated “as individuals instead of ‘just another defendant.’”

The second half of her first semester of community placement was spent shadowing professionals in the “fast-paced environment” of The Christ Hospital Behavioral Unit. In her second semester of community placement, Luehrmann shadowed a treating psychiatrist at Summit Behavioral Healthcare Center.

“At both hospitals, I was able to observe a treating psychiatrist’s day-to-day activities, as well as the legal hurdles that they face with nearly every decision they make,” said Luehrmann in an email. “I want to be a felony prosecutor after graduation. The Weaver Institute has undoubtedly given me the tools I need to pursue such goals.”

Symposia is Opportunity to Learn and Share

In the spring of their third year, Weaver Fellows are responsible for presenting a symposium focusing on a specific issue in mental health law. This year, on March 10, Dr. James Blair, Chief of the unit on Affective Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at the National Institute for Mental Health, discussed and explored the links between violent anti-social behavior and the brain.

Author: Nick Ruma, Communication Intern