Our Nation’s Shame: Incarcerating the Mentally Ill

Maureen MurdockMental Illness5 Comments

RethinkMentalIllnesslogo250_250The “deinstitutionalization” of the mentally ill in the 1960s and early 1970s—a movement prompted by the same liberal impulses that gave us civil rights and women’s rights—has become a national disgrace. “Mentally ill street people shame the society that lets them live as they do,” writes Joe Nicera.

What prompted Joe Nicera’s article, “Guns and Mental Illness” was a report in The New York Times about the plight of the mentally ill in New York after Hurricane Sandy as well as the deadly rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Nocera’s article was a plea for better treatment for the mentally ill. “With the mentally ill rarely institutionalized for any length of time—on the theory that their lives will be better if they are not confined in a hospital—other institutions have sprung up to take their place.”

Those other institutions that Nocera is referring to are prisons. In the United States we warehouse our mentally ill rather than provide them with appropriate in-patient care. Three times more people with severe mental illness are in jails and prisons than in hospitals.  In some states, the ratio is close to 10:1.

According to E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist who founded the Treatment Advocacy Center, a staggering 20% of the prison population in this country is seriously mentally ill. Around a third of the homeless are mentally ill.  “Ten % of homicides are committed by seriously mentally ill people who are not being treated.”  However, research has consistently found that individuals with mental illness who are receiving appropriate treatment are no more dangerous than the general population.

In the wake of the tragedies at Newton, Conn and Aurora, Colorado there is a lot of talk about gun control.  While I hope the discussion about gun control becomes more than political posturing, there has been little serious discussion about the need for more research and development of treatment for the mentally ill.

That takes money and many state and federal lawmakers don’t want to spend money on what they consider entitlements.   Even though all human beings are entitled to live without delusions and hallucinations and the pain of depression, mental illness is not a sexy platform. There is not as much interest in carrying the banner for mental health research and treatment as there is for cancer, cardiovascular disease and AIDS. Not only that, many of us delude ourselves into thinking that those with a mental illness can access good treatment and control their actions. Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders, not issues of behavior control.

According to Dr. Torrey, “The state and federal rules around mental illness are built upon a delusion: that the sickest among us should always be in control of their own treatment, and that deinstitutionalization is the more humane route.”

But that has not proved to be the case, has it? And how can you take care of your mental health if you are homeless, poor, or confused about what’s happening to your brain?

It’s important for the public to become aware that the current severe shortage in public psychiatric beds is in part responsible for the increase in homelessness, the increase in the number of mentally ill persons in jails and prisons, the increase in mentally ill persons in emergency rooms and the increase in violence, including homicides. According to data collected in 2005 and 2006, there are only 17 psychiatric inpatient beds per 100,000 people in California.

Let’s focus on lobbying for more available treatment for the mentally ill. We have the responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

5 Comments on “Our Nation’s Shame: Incarcerating the Mentally Ill”

  1. Maureen, I appreciate your articulation of this issue. I feel angry … makes me want to DO something. What can be done?

    1. Thanks for your question, Marti. There is a petition that Change.org has circulated entitled “Lawmakers of America: Improve mental health care, education and early intervention” at: http://www.change.org/petitions/lawmakers-of-america-improve-mental-health-care-education-and-early-intervention
      You could start by signing the petition and asking your friends to sign it too. It states that we need Federal support and assistance to: (1) implement school, family and community-based programs to promote mental health, to prevent mental illness and substance abuse and to provide early interventions for those exhibiting these conditions; (2) begin teaching students at all levels to recognize the signs of mental illness and addiction and to seek help when needed; (3) double the capacity of mental health and substance abuse programs. Write to the President, your Senator, Representative of the House, Governor, your State Senator and your State rep stating the importance of overhauling the mental health system.

  2. You capture the problems so well here, Maureen, the inability of our society to provide the funds that quality mental health requires. Instead, we keep pouring money into the prison-industrial complex.

  3. Excellent blog ,Maureen–I so agree with you and like especially your last sentence–we must take care of the most vulnerable in society–I do not understand why so many people do not feel this way.If everyone would just reach out and care a little bit more and extend their hand to help the entire world would shift and be so much better for all–it does not take much,just an awareness and a commitment to our fellow man.

    Happy New Year to you both.


  4. Our country’s treatment of the mentally ill is shameful. We witnessed the effects of the release of mentally ill from hospitals into the population while living in California. The privatization of the prison system has been another factor in the sad history of our collective blindness. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and concern.

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