By: Jean Vozella
Ever since deinstitutionalization in the 1970s, there has been an increased rate in the arrest and incarceration of people with mental health conditions. Deinstitutionalization, the process of replacing long-stay psychiatric hospitals with community mental health services for those with mental health issues, began in 1963 when John F. Kennedy passed the Community Mental Health Act. This act created federally funded psychiatric institutions that patients in state facilities could be transferred to. It was meant to reduce the population of mental health institutions as well as reform their treatment processes so that those with mental health-related disabilities would be less dependent on institutional care. It meant the reducing of admissions to mental health facilities and the shortening of patient’s stays. There is debate over the effectiveness of this process as being less isolated has benefited many individuals with mental health conditions; however, it has left many others homeless, unemployed, or incarcerated.
A study of the incarcerated population of several European countries in 1939 led to the theory that the number of people in jails and the number of people in mental facilities was inversely related. This theory, later coined “balloon theory,” would be tested in the United States in the 1970s. When deinstitutionalization reduced the number of patients in psychiatric institutions, the incarceration rate of individuals with mental health conditions began to increase.
Today, about 10 to 15% of inmates in state prisons have a mental health condition or a severe mental health-related disability. Many of these inmates have prior arrest records or had previously been institutionalized in a mental facility. It is difficult for these individuals to get the help they need in state prisons, and once they are released they have no home or family to return to. Without proper treatment and a strong support system, inmates with mental health-related disabilities are highly likely to be rearrested once they are released, creating a hopeless and dangerous cycle.
The criminalization of those with mental health conditions is a frightening process that is happening in the United States right now. And the root of this issue comes back to the lack of availability of long-term mental health institutions and hospitals. There are simply not enough resources to help rehabilitate and treat those with mental health conditions and/or mental health-related disabilities in the community. In the many cases where arresting offices encounter people with mental health conditions in the community, they are not trained to recognize the signs of certain mental illnesses or to effectively handle the situation. If they do recognize that an offender has a disability, long waits in the emergency room deter officers from bringing the individual to a hospital. County jails, however, offer a destination where individuals can be dealt with quickly and systematically.
How do we fight this process? We need to provide more accessible services to these individuals, such as hospital treatment and medication. It would also be beneficial to educate police officers and provide resources that make it easier for them to properly handle offenders with mental health conditions. And for those offenders with mental health conditions who are currently incarcerated and are expecting release, we can....
TO BE CONTINUED...check back here next week for more!
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