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Treating Rather Than Ignoring Mental Illness: A Lifesaving Proposition

February 15, 2011

Post by Robyn McCullough, Amicus Community Engagement Coordinator

The recent tragedy in Tucson, Arizona brought the topic of mental illness to the forefront of many Americans’ minds. While this senseless act of violence has spurred debate between various factions—some say lax gun laws are partly to blame for the tragedy, while some say vitriolic political rhetoric played a hand in encouraging the accused’s actions—one thing that seems to be clear, one fact that we can all agree on, is that the suspect in this case is almost certainly mentally ill.

Indeed, two news sources, National Public Radio and Fox News, published similar commentary on their respective websites regarding the role that mental health and the state of mental health awareness in this country(or lack thereof) played in the shooting:

Dr. Keith Ablow (a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team), wrote in a recent article concerning the tragedy: “Think about the difference, after all, in how people responded to Jared Loughner’s obvious and severe psychiatric symptoms and how they would respond to a person passing out repeatedly from the hyperglycemia caused by diabetes, or seizing from epilepsy or reporting migraine headaches. Can you imagine people simply turning away or rolling their eyes or chuckling?”

Meanwhile, in a recently published article on NPR’s website titled “Mental Health in Focus After Shooting in Arizona,” Neal Cash, president and CEO of Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, uses a very similar analogy to the one Dr. Ablow referenced in his article; he says: “If somebody is in a meeting and stands up —clutching their chest — people will rush to that person and provide the kind of assistance that they need […] If somebody stands up in that same meeting and starts ranting and raving, either they’ll be thrown out of that meeting or people may actually run away from that person.”

What these two commentaries imply is that the issue of mental health in this country is not taken as seriously as it should be and is likely part of the reason that someone like Jared Loughner (who by all accounts is mentally disturbed) was able to go unchecked and untreated for so long.  Is the fact that Jared Loughner’s mental health was not addressed and treated the reason that six people are dead and 14 others are injured?  Maybe, maybe not.  Regardless, what follows are some facts about mental health as it relates to the criminal justice system in the United States.

In a report published this past May entitled “More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States,” findings indicate that “Americans with severe mental illness are now three times as likely to be in jail as they are to be in a hospital.”

Largely due to the movement toward Deinstitutionalization of the 1960s and 1970s, increasingly fewer beds are available in public and private psychiatric hospitals as well as in psychiatric units of general hospitals.  While fewer beds are available in psychiatric treatment facilities, many more beds are available in prisons across the United States (200 new prison cells are constructed each day in the U.S.) and individuals who would have been patients in hospitals are now inmates in prisons.   The problem here is twofold: one, jails and prisons are not equipped to properly treat mentally ill persons; they are not defacto psychiatric treatment centers. Two, men and women who are mentally ill and in prison or jail are likely only coming into contact with (albeit inadequate) treatment after they have committed crimes.

Notably, according to the above mentioned report, Arizona has the highest likelihood that a severely mentally ill person is in prison rather than a hospital; in the entire state, there are 827 people occupying inpatient psychiatric hospital beds while there are an estimated 7,676 individuals in Arizona jails and prisons who have a serious mental illness.  That means that a mentally ill person is 9.3 times more likely to be behind bars than receiving hospital treatment.  Perhaps if Jared Loughner had been one of the 827 people occupying a hospital bed in Arizona we could have avoided a national tragedy.

Of course, what was done on January 8th demands that action be taken to protect the community from further violence by the accused, if he is found guilty.  But what Mr. Cash and Dr. Ablow along with a growing contingent of Americans are arguing is that until we begin to take mental health seriously in this country, we will continue to see preventable crimes committed.  “Mentally ill patients should be able to access treatment before they become dangerous or commit a crime, not after.”

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