Mental Health and The Mass Incarceration Epidemic

It is said that we as a nation are suffering from a mental health crisis. But what’s often missing from the conversation is who’s most affected in our society. Put simply, the lack of sufficient community-based treatment options has instead resulted in a drastic and disproportionate increase in the incarceration of people with mental illness.

How did we get here?

To understand how we got here, you have to go back to the 1960s. There was a sea change that did more harm than good. The mass closure of state-funded psychiatric facilities was intended to improve care for people suffering from mental illness and shift treatment provision to less restrictive settings.

People with mental illness were left with a few options: return home, go into nursing homes or live in other community-based residences. However, in regards to the latter, nearly half of these facilities were never built. And many of those that were built ended up shuttered, due to financial strain.

By the numbers

How does this relate to mass incarceration? Compared to the general population, those entrenched in the criminal justice system are significantly more likely to have a history of mental illness. Female inmates and older inmates tend to have higher rates of mental illness. Equally as concerning, suicide rates in detention facilities are approximately three times greater than in the general population. People with mental illness are 4.5 times more likely to be arrested than those in the general population. Despite the need for treatment options, only about a third of state prisoners and a sixth of jail inmates in need of such help reported receiving it while behind bars. It’s a mess of epic proportions. We can do better.

Next steps

Some people have come to terms with the scope and scale of the problem, but we need nationwide reform. For example, some communities are taking a proactive approach to keeping people out of the criminal justice system from the outset. They are employing specialized police or court-based diversion programs. As awareness grows around this issue, communities will need to once again address the need to invest in more local resources for treating mental illness.

[Monalisa Johnson is a licensed and ordained minister of the gospel and a certified life coach as well as a mother and entrepreneur. In no way is anything that she writes, speaks or shares considered medical advice or clinical therapy. Consider all that you receive to be life coaching and guidance.]

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