Have you ever told someone about a problem you’ve been having, and had the always-infuriating response, “Oh, that’s all just in your head”? Have you ever been told that by a doctor?
Imagine if you were told that by a judge.
Psychiatric disposals – any sentence which involves treatment for a mental health problem, from court-ordered therapy to hospital confinement – are a minority of sentences handed down in court in the UK. However, they are disproportionately given to women. In fact, approximately twice as many women are given psychiatric sentences compared to men, a fact that has remained consistent over several decades. More than that, court reports with women as the subject dedicated significantly more time to discussing their mental state.
Women are more likely to suffer from mental illness (or at least, more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness), but the proportion of women being given psychiatric sentences is much higher than the proportion diagnosed with mental illness. Even when men were considered ‘troubled’ and given assistance, it took the form of employment training or help with substance abuse rather than hospitalisation.
The stereotype of women as deranged, hysterical, and hormonal is alive and well in the criminal justice system. Whilst men are ‘allowed’ to be angry and violent, women who are so are ‘diagnosed’ – it is something broken within them, rather than the natural order. Men are in control of themselves, lucid about decisions to break the law, whilst women are not.
Not only are women denied their agency, they’re denied external problems. The real roots of crime in society are systemic: poverty, abuse, marginalisation. Instead, these problems are concentrated in the mind of the woman who has committed a crime, and she is painted as an abomination rather than a natural product of an increasingly vertical society.
The indignities don’t end there. The Infanticide Act allows women in England leniency in sentences if they are suffering from ‘imbalances in hormones’, but doesn’t reference post-partum depression or require a diagnosis. Of the disposals available, women are given the least intensive options. We’re not even given the credibility of being genuinely ill – we’re far enough from normal to be an anomaly, but not far enough to be seen as a danger to ourselves or another person.
Whilst psychiatric treatment may seem like leniency compared to a jail sentence, psychiatric treatment comes with social stigma, intrusion into a woman’s private life, and hidden coercion. Whilst a jail sentence comes with a fixed term, a psychiatric sentence finishes when the subject is pronounced ‘fixed’ – possibly never, depending on the whims of your doctor.
Female criminals are out of place and therefore must be suffering from a disturbance of the mind, whereas men who commit crime are expressing their masculinity in a way that is normal, expected, and therefore healthy. Yet another place where women are denied agency and misbelieved.