Matthew D'Emic is a New York state judge assigned to the Kings County Supreme Court, the state's felony-level trial court. His work in mental health has been acknowledged by the New York State Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, among others. While outsiders pay tribute to his successes, D'Emic, 59, is very much aware of his losses. Symbolic of these is the suicide of a 24-year-old man whose funeral D'Emic attended and whose story he shared in an essay titled Requiem for Rene: a suicide lament, which he discusses with Sr Camille D'Arienzo in NCR Online.
What caused you to feel so deeply about this death?
Although the Brooklyn Mental Health Court can boast more than 500 successful graduates, Rene was not one of them. In fact, there have been other suicides. I didn't anticipate any of them. Unlike the cancer patient who gives up on treatment because the physical pain is too much to bear, the suffering of the patient with mental illness is concealed and misunderstood.
What were the circumstances that brought this man to your court?
To answer this question, I first have to tell you about mental health courts. These are sometimes called problem-solving courts that operate under principles of "therapeutic jurisprudence," seeking to use the authority of the court for the physical and psychiatric benefit of those appearing before it. The Brooklyn Mental Health Court is an alternative to incarceration court. Its goal is to keep criminally accused persons suffering from mental illness out of jail and in treatment. Think of it as a second-chance court for these people.
Rene, accused of assault, came to the court as a defendant. He was evaluated by a psychiatrist and social worker. Since he suffered from a serious and persistent mental illness, he was eligible for diversion to the court. He then, like most mental health court defendants, entered a guilty plea with his sentence deferred.
If he successfully completed the court's treatment mandate, his felony plea would have been vacated and Rene would have been sentenced to misdemeanor probation. In less violent cases, a defendant can look forward to a complete dismissal of all charges.
What do you remember about that first meeting?
As he appeared before me with his attorney, my attention was drawn to the bizarre tattoos of celestial bodies that dotted his face and arms.
What had he done?
He had assaulted his grandmother's neighbour with a knife, a serious charge. A social worker and psychiatrist working with the court diagnosed Rene with bipolar type schizoaffective disorder.
How does that manifest itself?
His illness was characterized by extreme episodes, as the doctor explained, ranging from depressed, inert and suicidal lows to hyperactive, wild, grandiose highs, to unbridled rage, lasting anywhere from hours to months.
All of this was complicated by self-medication and with marijuana and alcohol. The onset of the disease came at age 19, requiring six hospitalisations, an assertive community treatment team and assisted outpatient treatment order by another judge, all before he got to me on the criminal charge. As our doctor sadly wrote, the disease "thoroughly disabled him since his late teens."
You joined Rene's family at his funeral Mass. How did this service meet the needs of the mourners?
The funeral rites of the Catholic church are rich in majesty and mystery. The Mass, resplendent with the priest's white vestments, a blessing with holy water and prayers to the saints and angels for the speedy deliverance of the departed's soul to the throne of God, is comforting and cathartic.
FULL STORY New York judge who works with mentally ill finds joy in family, music (NCR)