The New Asylums

I watched a program the other night about the growing number of mentally ill inmates in our prisons. Of the 2,000,000 people currently incarcerated, 500,000 have some type of mental illness. Sixteen-percent (283,000) are diagnosed with severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or major depression. Staff at city and county jails report and incidence of 25% severe mental illness, although when combined with anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression and substance abuse, this could be over 50%.

The program had some really distressing stories about a number of inmates. It is obvious that their crimes were directly related to their mental illness. This does not excuse the crime, but since we have such inadequate mental health resources in this country, it is not surprising that so much of our crime is being committed by individuals who do not have a firm grasp on reality. The sad fact is, these people are getting much better treatment in jail than they would out in society. If this seems perverse, it is.

There are several problems with our current system. First, not much is being done to help these people before they start committing crimes. We are a reactionary society; crime, health, environment. We don't deal with issues until after they become a problem. Not a particularly bright strategy.

Second, not much help is given to these individuals once they serve their time. The vast majority will end up committing another crime and serving more time. Standard procedure is to give ex-inmates two weeks of their prescription to start them off back in the community. This ignores the fact that is can take more than two weeks to get an appointment with a mental health professional to get a new prescription. The result is men and women off their meds, afflicted with the illness and falling back on their previous behaviors. Again, not a smart system.

There has been some progress. Increasing awareness is being paid to this problem and there are groups actively trying to help solve the problem. What is needed, however, is a broader recognition of the issue within communities and at the national level.

Incidentally, if there was ever a better example of the importance of education, I don't know what it is.

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