New Northwestern Law Faculty Member Candice Player Focuses on Law and the Mental Health System

July 22, 2015

Candice Player first became interested in how the law deals with mentally ill individuals when she was an undergraduate student at Harvard University.

Professor Candice Player
Candice Player

“I remember walking around Harvard Square and seeing lots of people who were clearly mentally ill and poor, asking for change and I wondered ‘How did that happen? What went wrong?’” she said. “Lots of important public policy issues in the United States are heavily contested, but I think we can all agree it’s clearly wrong for somebody who has a mental illness to be in the streets and in need of food and shelter.”

She continued investigating these issues throughout her academic career, earning her JD and a PhD in ethics and health policy at Harvard and an MPhil in criminology from Cambridge University. Player also completed a fellowship in health policy, law, and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania before joining the Northwestern Law faculty.

“I started researching the shift from institutional mental health care to community mental health care and I started thinking about what reformers intended to achieve and what actually happened.” 

Critics of current mental health policy will blame the high rates of homelessness among the mentally ill on the changes in laws involving involuntary commitment that took place in the 1970s. But instead of just asking what the standards should be, Player is interested in why the law allows for certain exceptions when dealing with the mentally ill.

“Ordinarily someone has to be convicted of a crime, or at least charged with a crime, before you can lock them up—unless they are mentally ill, in which case you can detain a person in advance of a crime they might commit. So I started wondering, what is it about mental illness that would justify an exception to the rule that we ordinarily wait for someone to be convicted of a crime before you can detain them?”

These are the types of questions Player plans to tackle in both her research and her teaching. She is working on a series of articles that together will provide a comprehensive look at the mental health system in the United States—the cost, quality, coordination of, and access to care. She is similarly excited to tackle tough questions with her students when she teaches Bioethics and Law this fall.

“I’m always so interested in what people’s intuitions are about hard questions around physician assisted suicide, or abortion, or organ sales, or requiring a person to purchase health insurance. I’m really looking forward to those conversations with students.”

Player’s commitment to these issues extends beyond the classroom walls. During her postdoctoral work at Penn, she served as a street outreach volunteer with Project HOME, a Philadelphia-based non-profit dedicated to ending homelessness, and she is eager to uncover similar opportunities within the Northwestern Law and Chicago communities.