Decriminalizing Mental Illness

When people started talking about defunding the police, I thought, “Oh my god, why would they do that?” until I later learned that term didn’t mean completely removing funds from the department but reallocating them to other services. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, and I’m NOT here to argue any one position. But reallocating money to some services makes sense to me, especially when it comes to the mentally ill.

I remember a conversation I had very recently — a friend said she was concerned that her brother, who was mentally ill, was going to get shot by the police one day because he didn’t always follow commands and had problems distinguishing his thoughts from reality. She said she told every police officer she came across to watch out for her brother. That’s sad, but for her and her family, it’s a very real concern.

Again, I’m not saying the police are bad guys, and I’m very grateful for their service and dedication to their communities. What I am trying to say is that maybe their time would be better spent on actual criminal activity and not be spent on de-escalating situations where mentally ill persons are involved. I realize sometimes it might be needed, but there is a large number of mentally ill people incarcerated when sometimes they don’t need to be.

Mental Health America, an advocacy group, says that in the past 50 years, the U.S. has gone from institutionalizing people with mental illness to incarcerating them at unprecedented rates, putting recovery out of reach for million of Americans. On any given day, 300,000 to 400,000 people with mental illness are under “correctional control.”

This is attributed to a lack of state hospital beds in the country, as well as a lack of proper training for law enforcement officials to identify mentally ill persons (which makes sense if the situation is dangerous and they don’t have time to suss out many details).

It didn’t use to be this way, though. Back in the ’50s and ’60s there was a huge call to action for states to empty out state psychiatric facilities by fiscal conservatives, civil rights activists and others. A lot had to do with the movie, “The One That Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” because people were convinced the mentally ill were being treated inhumanely. So they were “liberated.”

But now there’s a bigger problem — jails and prisons are becoming the “new asylums” for mentally ill. In 44 states, jails/prisons with both a county jail and county psychiatric facility, more seriously mentally ill (about 3 times as many) are incarcerated than hospitalized. U.S. prisons have essentially become warehouses for the mentally ill because of the decrease of state hospital beds yet the mentally ill receive inadequate care and have poor supervision. They are more likely to commit suicide as well as more likely to be sexually assaulted (1 in 4 inmates for females; 1 in 12 for males; 1 in 33 for inmates without a mental disorder). An article on Slate.com reported that in Florida, the prison staff takes pains to ensure the mentally ill patients are fit to stand trial but once convicted, they’re cut off from all services. Naturally, a lot of the inmates’ conditions worsen while in custody.

It’s also important to note that in Florida’s Orange County Jail, the average stay for all inmates is 26 days; for mentally ill inmates, it is 51 days. In New York’s Riker’s Island, the average stay for all inmates is 42 days; for mentally ill inmates, it is 215 days.

And if that’s not appalling to you, let’s also broach the subject of money. It is very costly to house a mentally ill person. It costs about $80 per day to incarcerate inmates without a mental disorder and $130 per day for mentally ill inmates. The average per year in Texas is about $22,000 for inmates without a mental disorder and it ranges from $30,000 to $50,000 per year for mentally ill inmates. This can all be found here on the Treatment Advocacy Center website.

It’s obvious something’s not right here. I’m not saying we need to increase the number of state hospitals once again, but maybe we do. I think it’s worth a discussion.

In 2019, when I was struggling with depression so badly, I went to a privately-run psychiatric facility called The Menninger Clinic. It’s one of the best in the country, but it’s also one of the most expensive. Thankfully, my family has been able to afford it as well as medications not covered by insurance and providers who don’t accept insurance — and there are a lot.

I think I would literally be dead if I couldn’t afford my meds and the services that I have received. That’s no exaggeration.

Some aren’t that lucky.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, please visit the National Alliance on Mental Health to learn more and find resources.

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