Mental health care

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Mental health care . . .

In America's Prisons and Jails

In the November 1, 2003 New York Times Op-Ed article "Out of the Asylum, Into the Cell", Sally Satel cites the October 22, 2003 report by Human Rights Watch that "found that American prisons and jails contain three times more mentally ill people than do our psychiatric hospitals." Additionally, the "study confirmed what mental health and corrections experts have long known: incarceration has become the nation's default mental health treatment."

Even more importantly, says Satel, "while the report offers good suggestions on how to help those who are incarcerated, a bigger question is what we can do to keep them from ending up behind bars at all."

"The Los Angeles County jail, with 3,400 mentally ill prisoners, functions as the largest psychiatric inpatient institution in the United States. New York's Rikers Island, with 3,000 mentally ill inmates, is second. According to the Justice Department, roughly 16 percent of American inmates have serious psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness and disabling depression."

"How did we get here?," asks Satel, then answers "Actually, with the best of intentions."

"Forty years ago yesterday, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act, under which large state hospitals for the mentally ill would give way to small community clinics. He said of the law that the 'reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.'
"Kennedy was acting in response to a genuine shift in attitudes toward the mentally ill during the postwar years. The public and lawmakers had become aware of the dreadful conditions in the state hospitals, largely though exposés like Albert Deutsch's book 'The Shame of the States' and popular entertainment like the movie 'The Snake Pit,' both of which appeared in 1948. In addition, Thorazine, an anti-psychotic medication, became available in the mid-50's and rendered many patients calm enough for discharge.
"Between Kennedy's signing of the mental health law in 1963 and its expiration in 1980, the number of patients in state mental hospitals dropped by about 70 percent. But asylum reform had a series of unintended consequences. The nation's 700 or so community mental health centers could not handle the huge numbers of fragile patients who had been released after spending months or years in the large institutions.
"There were not enough psychiatrists and health workers willing to roll up their sleeves and take on these tough cases. Closely supervised treatment, community-supported housing and rehabilitation were given short shrift. In addition, civil liberties law gained momentum in the 70's and made it unreasonably hard for judges to commit patients who relapsed but refused care. Those discharged from state hospitals were often caught in a revolving door, quickly failing in the community and going back to the institution. And they were the lucky ones -- many others ended up living in flop-houses, on the streets or, as Human Rights Watch has reminded us, in prison."

Satel offers some suggestions to help reform the state of mental healtch care:

  • Segregate "mentally ill prisoners in treatment units".
  • Ultimately, keep "psychotic people whose criminal infractions are a product of their sickness out of jails in the first place" first by "repairing a terribly fragmented mental health care system" and, most importantly, liberate "states from the straitjacket of federal regulations surrounding the use of money from Medicaid and Medicare -- programs that account for two-thirds of every public dollar spent on the mentally ill."

Broken Promises: 25 Years After We Unlocked the Mentally Ill, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

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