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Why Mental Illness Should Not Be Treated Like a Crime

We have all read the news stories or seen the headlines that involve mentally ill civilians who are shot or injured when confronted by the police. It's no question, law enforcement officers have difficult jobs. And it can be tough to make the right call in the heat of the moment, when it may not be clear what state of mind a suspect is operating under. However, we have seen many cases when clear-cut mental illness was confronted as criminal behavior, often with deadly results.

For the mentally ill who fall into our criminal justice system, the cards aren't just unfairly stacked against them – they are being dealt a hand for a game they don't even understand. Because mental illness is rooted in unconscious and hard-to-control behavior, we need to address this issue for what it is – not treat it as criminal. Studies and real-life examples prove that experts who understand mental illness are better equipped than law enforcement for confronting and treating mentally ill individuals. And in its current state, the access and quality of care for mental health in prisons should be drastically improved.


For proof that our system is failing and law enforcement and mental illness may not mix, just look at the statistics. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), '83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.' These conditions, where treatment is absent, cause symptoms that result in 'criminal behavior' that just get worse. In these cases, the system is clearly failing. Even worse, once the mentally ill are released, their lives can easily downward spiral. Their ability to get proper healthcare, employment and sufficient housing is greatly hampered by having a criminal record – especially in an already tough economy.

The effect of treating mental illness in prisons is negative on society as a whole. Incarceration of individuals suffering from mental illness also has a negative financial impact on society. In 2014, the Columbus Dispatch reported "The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spent $41.7 million on mental-health care and medications in fiscal year 2014 and is projected to spend $49 million this year. That is on top of the $22,836 annual overall cost per inmate."

This approach not only results in poor patient and financial outcomes, but incarcerating the mentally ill only creates more stress in an already tense environments. Law enforcement workers with no training in psychology are at a disadvantage and unfairly forced to act in psychiatric and counselor roles they aren't equipped for – and do not know how to handle properly. Quite simply, the crimes committed by mentally ill individuals are a different animal than ones committed by criminals who don't fall into this category.

The main thing that has to change before real change can take place is the stigma of mental illness needs to be addressed and go away. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates "in 2014, there were an estimated 9.8 million adults (4.1%) ages 18 and up with a serious mental illness in the past year." In other words, everyone knows someone (or several people) who experience some form of mental illness.

So how should law enforcement treat mental illness?

The stance that NAMI takes is clear: there should be treatment options for individuals before and after arrest. NAMI also supports access to complete mental health services no matter what their mental state, financial ability, or offense.

Let's use schizophrenia as an example of how we can approach a common mental illness in a way that treats the patient and poses little, if any, risk to society. According to an article in the Boston Globe, almost 2.5 million Americans suffer from this illness; typically men and women between 18 and 40. If these individuals are diagnosed and treated many of these people "can live in supervised or even unsupervised settings, become gainfully employed and even have extended periods where they are symptom-free. Some patients do require treatment in secure settings, but never in a prison. One of the important treatment modalities is the opportunity for social interaction with others."

If we take this approach, those individuals are in a position to contribute to society in a positive way. And they can participate in activities that offer feelings of self-fulfillment, which can lead to overall happiness and increased chances of positive outcomes. These types of treatment plans can be applied to people with impulse control and substance abuse problems, among other types of common mental illness.

The bottom line is that things need to get better. With the increased awareness and viral nature of our social-media driven society, you can believe this sensitive issue won't be going away for a while. A 2014 report noted in an article on Slate stated that ten times more mentally ill people were incarcerated than getting treatment in a state psychiatric hospital.  "Ten times more mentally ill people are now in jails and prisons than in state psychiatric hospitals." That number should sound the national alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about the welfare of those who suffer from mental illness. The numbers and evidence don't lie: we could save a lot of people's lives, taxpayers a lot of money, and make the jobs of our law enforcement officers easier if we de-criminalized mental illness.

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