Pushing Mental Illness To The Wayside

“Over the centuries, there have been trends in the way mental illness is viewed and treated by society. No matter the language used, society has attached stigma and applied discrimination with differing intensity and effect.” (Chaimowitz 2012)

The government has failed the population that struggles with mental illnesses. Recently there have been several personal occasions and widespread legal changes that really drove this home to me. One of the primary issues is the overall dearth of government mental health services. For the purposes of this article, I am going to primarily focus on statistics in the United States, although from talking with residents of other countries, I would posit that adequate support for mental health is far and few between around the world.

The deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals has been occurring since the 1950s–1960s, when it was thought to be more humane to release the residents from the horrific state of crowded psychiatric asylums and sub-par treatment. The thought was that, with the combination of psychotropic medications and a society with supportive government programs, the patients could have a better life. Sounds like a slice of heaven, right? If only things were that simple. While the asylums kept their end of the bargain, the supportive government guardrails were never effectively put into place.

Fast-forward to present day where recently funding for state psychiatric hospitals was further cut in several states, resulting in more state facilities shutting down (like Alabama). The residents typically have little external social and financial support, and frequently end up in prison or homeless. Please do not misunderstand me—individuals with mental illnesses are highly capable of functioning superbly in society. But it is the ones who cannot afford, or take time for, proper treatment that fall to the wayside. Untreated, mental illnesses have the potential to wreak havoc on standard functioning required to exist in our society, like waking up on time, paying attention to details, or holding a job. Without a job, these individuals end up on the streets, in shelters, public housing projects, emergency rooms, or prisons. Ironically, the lack of mental health care probably ends up costing taxpayers more because it is our lovely tax dollars that pay for public “services” like housing projects, prisons, and psychiatric care in jails.

In both the United States and Canada there has been a noted inverse relationship between prison and mental hospital populations—as the amount of available beds decreases, the prison population has swelled:

“Between 1980 and 1995, the total number of incarcerated in the United States rose from 501,836 to 1,587,791, a 216 per cent increase—the population at that time increased by only 16 percent” [emphasis is mine] (Chaimowitz 2012).

Along the same vein, the prevalence rates of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and suicide rates have markedly increased among the prisoner communities. This means that the patients have to be treated within the correctional facility, which, as you might imagine is not an environment that is conducive to overall wellbeing. “The forensic so-called platinum card for psychiatric care came at a cost of criminalizing the patient” (Chaimowitz 2012).

Patients with severe mental illnesses that would have been placed in the tertiary levels of psychiatric hospitals are, in our present day, placed in prisons. Individuals with mild to moderate mental illnesses are functioning at a sub par level because they are not receiving the treatment they so badly need. Our governments have failed the mental illness population by essentially placing the group even further below the criminal population. These trends are important for the average citizen to be aware of because the mental illness population needs advocates for their health, and the health of our entire society. I can guarantee that you know someone who has a mental illness, even if they have not told you. Every individual with a mental illness deserves best-practice treatment and NOT the de facto placement in the prison system. Mental illnesses are as real as any “physical” illness, and deserve to have the same levels of funding and support of the government systems. Raise your voices, darlings!

See Also
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Chaimowitz, G. (2012). The criminalization of people with mental illness. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry57(2), 1-7.

Photo credit to Nico Nordstrom

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What experiences have you had with mental illness and the government system? Tweet us @litdarling!

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