Updated 30 June 2014

Why Oscar was sent for 30 days observation in a mental hospital

Still puzzled by why Oscar Pistorius was sent to a mental hospital for observation? Here's what it means.

It is generally uncommon for a mental observation to have taken place at this late stage in the trial as it is usually requested at the bail hearing or the very start of a trial.

If the defence thinks the accused has a relevant mental illness:

- perhaps that they are too disordered to be able to stand trial at all
- unable to understand what’s happening or to work properly with their lawyer
- if they believe the person’s mental state at the time of the offence was such that they couldn't tell right from wrong
- were unable to act according to such perceptions,

then the defence can apply for the court to send them to a hospital for observation.

If their degree of disorder is obvious enough, even the prosecutor may apply, or the magistrate/judge may decide on their own.

Read: What is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)?

What normally happens

Generally what is done is that the person is taken compulsorily to a mental hospital or similar facility, where they will be placed “under observation”.

- a psychiatrist will assess them fairly frequently
- psychological and other medical tests and investigations may be done
- the observations of nurses and others will be taken into account.

A report will be prepared for the court on the accused’s mental state, the diagnosis and its implications, to help the court decide whether the person is fit to stand trial, whether they are likely to have been responsible for their actions, and otherwise take this into account during trial, verdict and sentencing.

Read: CyberShrink dissects psychiatrist Merryl Vorster's evidence

For instance, someone might be well aware of what a trial is, and able to work with a lawyer to defend themselves. 

But perhaps they have a severe psychotic illness, and, at the time of an attack, were deluded and sincerely believed that the other person was an alien invader 'greatly endangering the city', and then the person should not be considered guilty of an ordinary assault.

Read: Lefties more likely to suffer psychotic disorders

Is 30 days observation normal?

There is absolutely nothing special or magical about the observation period being 30 days; it's simply a traditional and convenient time to allow the work of assessment to take place - the doctor has other duties as well - tests take time to perform and to get the results back, and so on, and it takes time to get a proper report written and typed.

If a shorter time was used, time would probably be wasted as the court would often re-convene only to have to set another date when the results might be ready.

Read more:
Why was Oscar vomiting in court?
Has Oscar Pistorius lost the plot?
Do you hope Oscar is innocent, or do you need him to be innocent?
We've been punked - the Oscar trial gets truly ridiculous

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Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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