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Mentally Ill: The Disposable People of 2015

Today's post is inspired by President Obama's historical visit to a federal prison. As the first sitting President to ever to do so, it highlights a serious issue that often remains silenced behind stone walls. A high number of individuals incarcerated have a mental illness. 55% of male inmates and 73% of female inmates suffer from at least one form of mental illness. Due to the lack of access to mental health facilities and services, jails and prisons have now become the number one provider for mental health services. If someone is suffering from a heart attack, people would call 911 and would ask for an ambulance. However, if someone is suffering from a mental health crisis and/or threatening suicide, most people would dial 911 and ask for the police. 
Across the nation, law enforcement officials have become inundated in responding to crisis calls. Police offices trained to fight crime and protect their communities, are now taking on the role of therapist. This realization is what has created the need for Crisis Intervention Units (CIT Unit). The units help to identify whether a call to 911 is related to a true crime or a mental health related issue. If deemed a mental health related issue, the CIT Unit--comprised of officers and mental health professionals will be sent instead. The benefits of this helps to de-escalating the situation, so that force does not have to be used. In addition, medical treatment, mental health evaluations, or referrals can be made. CIT Units are critical to helping communities identify gaps within local or state behavioral health systems.

Incarceration of the mentally ill, as opposed to treatment, is inhumane. There is NO other illness in which this would be tolerated. Image the uproar to know that someone going through dialysis or chemotherapy was handcuffed, arrested, and put in jail. Yet, every day in America thousands of youth, men, and women are incarcerated rather than being treated. The cost of incarcerating as opposed to treatment is far more expensive and only increases the rate as to which these individuals will be imprisoned again when released. However, mental health services and resources are among the first to be threatened for funding cuts nationally and among states individually. Nationally, mental health services have suffered a 25% cut, meaning less opportunity for access to quality care, services, and professional treatment. For individuals living in high rural states finding a place to go and get help diminishes even less. 

The voices of those suffering from mental illness has been silenced, and rights continuously violated. This is great injustice and we should all be enraged. Especially, when 1 out of every 5 American will suffer from mental illness at least once in their life, it is an issue that should be of concern to us all. What if this was you or your loved one? The mentally ill are not disposable people. They are humans that deserve compassion, dignity, support, and access to services and treatment. 

President Obama is correct in noting that mass incarceration is not normal. It is not something we should be so accepting of. A few years ago, I traveled to Venice, Italy to meet with officials from their national Mental Health Department. Their approach to incarceration was one that was both humane towards those suffering from mental illness and also compassionate in providing a system of care which revolved around mental health treatment. The outcomes have shown this model works, and nationally, Italy has some of the world's lowest suicide and recidivism rates. Proper diagnosis and treatment has decreased the chances of someone becoming a repeat offender. Thanks to their national policies, individuals who are incarcerated receive a number of services intended to treat the whole person and depending on the length of the their sentence, they are required to complete a variety of programs to help integrate them back into society. One official noted that if you treat someone like a criminal long enough, soon they will have no other choice to see themselves as anything else--especially one who suffers from mental illness.

Jails and prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill and it is time we band together as a nation to realize that cutting funding for mental health and limiting access to treatment is not the solution. How you treat those who can do nothing for you in return, speaks volumes about leadership. Fighting for justice on behalf of the mentally ill is what I believe to be the Civil Rights movement of today. What will future generations think of us, when they look back and see how mentally ill were treated in 2015? Is it something you would be proud of?


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