By Ron Honberg, NAMI Director of Policy and Legal Affairs
The new head of Michigan's Department of Corrections recently made national news when he expressed concerns about the extent to which his department's resources are used to provide mental health to inmates.
On August 21, it was reported in the Detroit News that Dan Heyns, director of Michigan's Department of Corrections wanted to work with sheriffs, prosecutors and local officials to ensure that fewer people living with mental illnesses come to prison.
"I've got institutions that are just packed with people who are very, very seriously mentally ill", Heyns said. "These aren't stress cases. I can't exactly provide a therapeutic environment."
Jails and prisons are the worst possible environments for people struggling with the symptoms of severe mental illnesses. Prisons are ill-equipped to provide effective psychiatric treatment. Inmates with the most severe mental illnesses are too often isolated in administrative segregation, special housing units, super-max prisons and other forms of solitary confinement. The long term isolation of individuals experiencing delusions, hallucinations or other severe psychiatric symptoms has been characterized as being akin to torture.
Sadly, the problems highlighted by Director Heyns are not unique to Michigan. A recent study revealed that about 17.1 of male inmates and 34.3 percent of female inmates in local jails throughout the country live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or PTSD. When compared to figures for the general population this is roughly a 470 percent increase in prevalence for both men and women.
So what can be done to achieve Director Heyns vision that fewer individuals living with mental illnesses come to prison to begin with?
Some would respond that we need to take a close look at our nation's treatment laws. Until the 1960s, people living with serious mental illnesses were virtually devoid of civil rights protections and were frequently institutionalized for long periods of time with no due process or right to appeal. Fortunately, these egregious civil rights abuses are a thing of the past.
There are many who believe that the laws have gone too far in the other direction, asserting that requiring proof of immediate or imminent danger to self or others means that certain people will not get help when they need it the most. Not everyone agrees. Many argue equally strenuously that the laws should remain as they are, citing continuing abuses and civil rights violations in hospitals, adult care homes, and other settings as evidence that we need to maintain strict, narrow civil commitment standards.
Irrespective of how you feel about these complex issues, the overall lack of mental health services and supports across the country is beyond dispute. Even during the best of economic times, the availability of good mental health services has been limited in the US, particularly for those who rely on the public mental health system for their care. In 2006 and 2009, before the full impact of the economic crisis, NAMI gave the nation's mental health system a grade of "D" in its Grading the States 2006 and 2009 reports.
Unfortunately, the economic recession has only made these problems worse. In March, 2011, NAMI released a report entitled State Mental Health Cuts: A National Crisis. This report revealed cuts to non-Medicaid state mental health spending of nearly $1.6 billion dollars between 2009 and 2011, with even deeper cuts projected for 2012. These cuts have led to the erosion of vital inpatient and community services for tens of thousands of youth and adults living with the most serious mental illnesses. Hospital beds have been eliminated and in many parts of the country, there are virtually no community services available either.
Not surprisingly, these cuts have added to already considerable burdens faced by law enforcement and correction centers. In Nevada, Judge Jackie Glass, who runs the Clark County (Las Vegas) Mental Health Court implored legislators not to impose further cuts on mental health services. She testified that "you will see … people [who lose mental health services] ending up in prisons, jails, emergency rooms, homeless…"
In Sacramento County, California, U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez went further, blocking the county from cutting mental health services as a way to balance the budget. He stated that the county's budget cutting plan would cause "catastrophic harm" and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The U.S. is clearly at a pivotal moment in its history. Solutions to the budget crisis are not easy. However, one thing is clear: Indiscriminate cuts to mental health budgets will not save money, but cost more in the long run. Cuts of the magnitude that have occurred will continue to perpetuate the national disgrace of incarcerating people for the "crime" of having a serious mental illness. We should pay heed to Director Heyns, Judge Glass, Judge Mendez and others on the front lines responding to people in crisis. A civilized, advanced nation must do better for its most vulnerable citizens.