When I was arrested in Arizona in the middle of a psychotic breakdown, I was immediately taken to jail, rather than a mental hospital, which is where I should have gone. A month later I was arrested in Ohio, and in that case I was taken to a mental hospital. In the first case, I did not get better. In the second case, I was finally able to get the help I needed, my condition began to stabilize and I was able to remain stable from that point forward. What I didn’t understand at the time was that for a majority of the country, jail has become the de facto housing facility for the mentally ill. Cuts to mental health budgets throughout the country have created a status quo where not only are millions of people in the United States in jail, but the majority of them suffer from a mental illness. In a study released in 2006, the Department of Justice estimated that fully 64 percent of local jail inmates have some form of mental illness. In reality the number is probably higher. This is all the result of policies that have weakened or even removed large parts of the mental health commitment system, enacted primarily in the 1970s and 1980s, largely during the Ronald Reagan presidency. The consequences for this are far reaching. Higher murder and assault rates, higher property crime rates, higher rates of drug abuse, and lost productivity of the many people whose lives are destroyed by mental illness.
To quote the NAMI article I linked above, this is both a scandal and a national tragedy. It is criminal negligence on the part of society with regard to the less fortunate. It is emblematic of a lack of caring for others and a total lack of empathy on the part of our citizenry and representative politicians. The mentally ill are largely relegated to either homelessness or jail time, with no thought to actual quality treatment and re-integration back into society. The mental health system needs more support, it needs an overhaul. The criminal justice system’s deeply flawed way of dealing with the mentally ill has got to change. Locking people up and then just releasing them without helping them at all accomplishes nothing. It’s time for America to do better, there are no valid excuses or reasons for why things are the way they are today. The loss of human potential due to this systemic maltreatment of mental illness is probably not quantifiable, but try to manage how many lives have been lost or ruined by insanity because of America’s current policies, and along with all the possible contributions the many people hurt by the system could have made to society.
Since the majority of residents of jail and prison are mentally ill, it’s not hard to imagine that many crimes could possibly be prevented if sick people had access to the care they needed and didn’t have to resort to drugs, crime, or subsisting on the streets. Reform is needed immediately. It’s a large boulder to push up the hill but we have to start somewhere.
Let’s get going.
If you’d like to help in some way, I recommend joining NAMI or donating to them.