Major mental institutions were closed in the 1980s. Patients were expected to be treated at community mental health centers, but in the past several decades, these centers have been under-sourced or defunded. As a result, prisons have become the greatest repository in the US for people with mental illness.
It is thought that more than half of all inmates suffer from diagnosable and serious mental illness. In a 2006 study by the US Department of Justice, findings showed that 64% of local jail inmates, 56% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners had symptoms of serious mental illness.
This finding demonstrated that the problem was far more pervasive and deep than anyone had earlier imagined it to be. Many of the inmates with symptoms of a serious disorder had served prior sentences, committed violent crimes, or engaged in substance abuse.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a well-established advocacy group for mental health, reported these findings as an indictment of the US mental healthcare system. NAMI noted that in a comprehensive study of mental healthcare systems also released in 2006, the average national grade for mental health care was D on an A to F scale.
These findings indicate that our country is failing to provide basic mental health services to those who need them most. The consequences are not surprising.
The office of Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) reports that four times the number of people with serious mental illness are incarcerated than are housed in mental health facilities. Prisons are not treatment facilities. Mental health care in the justice system is profoundly inadequate – because that is not what they are established to be. Incarceration, misdiagnosis and mismanagement of disorders exacerbates and prolongs them.
If you want to make a difference, advocate for decent mental health care.