The “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.
- Let’s get serious about mental health (miamiherald.com)
- Judge: Indiana ‘indifferent’ to mentally ill inmates (posttrib.suntimes.com)