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Letter: Criminalizing mental illness

Decades of failed mental health policies have placed law enforcement on the front line of mental illness crisis response and turned jails and prisons into the new asylums.

Deinstitutionalization, outdated treatment laws demanding a person become violent before intervention, discriminatory federal Medicaid funding practices and the prolonged failure by states to fund their mental health systems drive those in need of care into the criminal justice and corrections systems, rather than into the public health system where they belong.

The “criminalization” of mental illness has wide ranging and devastating consequences. Today:

• In 44 states, a jail or prison holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital.

• Individuals with psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to be in jail or prison than a hospital bed.

While many states attempt to divert people from jail if their crimes are the product of illness, diversion alone cannot address policies making the care of those with mental illness a law enforcement matter rather than a medical one.

Criminalizing mental illness worsens the health of hundreds of thousands of people and complicates their recovery by creating additional barriers to housing and employment. It burdens law enforcement and correctional systems. In the process, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars. Nobody benefits — everybody pays.

One would think that society would have learned something by now. Asylums haven’t worked. State run psychiatric facilities haven’t worked. And now, deinstitutionalization hasn’t worked. Community-based mental health services need to be established and fully funded if people with mental illness and/or addictions are to be active participants of their communities. But, as usual, society continues to turn its back on those with mental illness and/or addiction and ignores the fact that these issues are costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

As a peer support specialist, I am constantly reminded  (and saddened) when I hear of families reaching out for help for their loved one and they can’t get (or find) the help they need to overcome their health problems, or to  see them incarcerated with little hope of receiving help, or much worse, see their loved one die of an overdose.

Isn’t it time for society to take action and take the initiative to establish community-based mental health services, complete with funding?

If anyone would like to send their comments, I may be reached at gottahavehope38@gmail.com.

Mark Jacobson