Mental Health and Criminal Justice

You have probably heard it said, “The weather is so bipolar today,” to describe fluctuating temperatures in weather. We as a society use various disorders as adjectives so often that we seldom realize that there is anything wrong with it at all. We use words like “schizo” to describe conflicting moods in a way that has normalized and numbed us to what the words really mean. When we hear of mental illness, most of us don’t realize just how prevalent it is and how much it affects our very own communities.

To many, a stigma is a disgraceful flaw, that of a negative presence. In mental health, this stigma is overwhelming. Approximately 57.7 million Americans experience a mental health disorder in any given year (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and unfortunately, people in dire need of help are not seeking it. Mental illnesses are going untreated, and in too many cases, even undiagnosed. The mental health stigma is having a negative impact on not only the proper diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, but on the way we handle these illnesses in virtually every aspect of our society.

The outcome of this shameful stigma, though, is especially staggering in a particular sector of society, the criminal justice system. Despite what we see on television, a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” is exceedingly rare. Most defendants with mental illnesses end up incarcerated. In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition (National Alliance on Mental Illness). The vast majority of the individuals are not violent criminals -- most people in jails have not yet gone to trial, so they are not yet convicted of a crime. The rest are serving short sentences for minor crimes. They stay longer than their counterparts without mental illness. Once in jail, many individuals don’t receive the treatment they need and end up getting worse, not better. As a result, the recidivism rate among released convicts is especially high for those with serious disorders.

Jailing people with mental illness creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets. It does not protect public safety, and people who could be helped are being ignored. Clearly, many factors are at play here but without the appropriate amount of mental health training for police, rash stigmatization and misinterpretation of the intentions of the mentally ill can cause vital errors and ultimately make the difference between life and death.

Helping people get out of jail and into treatment programs should be a top priority. Everyone should have access to a full array of mental health services and supports in their communities to help prevent interactions with police. These supports should include treatment for drug and alcohol use conditions, and supports like housing, education, employment and family support. If individuals do come to the attention of law enforcement, communities should create options to divert them to treatment and services -- before arrest, after arrest and at all points in the justice system. When individuals are in jail, they should have access to needed medication and support. They should be signed up for health coverage if possible and get help planning their release to ensure they get back on track.

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