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What You Said About the Criminalization of Mental Illness

TRIAD's first nationwide survey of NAMI members showed that the criminalization of mental illness is an unfortunate fact of life in this country. Forty-four percent of the individuals with a mental illness represented in the survey have been arrested or detained during their lives—29 percent of them in the last year alone. Jail diversion services were not available to most of those detained by the police in the last year—only 35 percent reported receiving services or supports to prevent arrest or detention and only a little more than half—60 percent—received needed mental health treatment following arrest or detention in the last year.

The disgraceful state of the mental health system means that all too often people with a mental illness end up in the hands of the criminal justice system due to the lack of treatments and services available to people with a mental illness and the difficulties of obtaining these services. Our web-based survey in August 2003 reaffirmed this shameful state of affairs for people with a mental illness in America. Forty-one people answered questions on their experiences with the criminal justice system, of which 48 percent of respondents were individuals with a mental illness and 52 percent were family members or friends.

An astonishing 80 percent of respondents had been arrested or detained by the police at some point in their lifetime—45 percent had been arrested or detained in the past year. Over two-thirds of individuals with a mental illness did not receive any services to prevent unnecessary arrest and less than half, 42 percent, received needed mental health treatment following the arrest or detention.

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The open-ended comments gave life to these numbers and the terrible struggles and indignities faced by individuals with a mental illness and their family members when mental illness is criminalized:

We contacted the criminal system, and were advised our son would be given medical care, 3 months later he is still in jail, and has not received any type of meds, we turned him in because he was saying threatening things, if we had to do this again we would not trust them to have our son treated.

My son was handcuffed in our home, in his bedroom, 9pm one night last week for not contacting his probation officer. I was frantic and so was my son. He did not understand what was going on. His probation officer had sent out a warrant for his arrest for not contacting her. I called the probation officer from work and she told me she was going to try to send my son to prison…My son does not understand what is required of him at any time by the probation officer…I told his probation officer that he needs help, not prison, … My son called from jail tonight, confused, sobbing uncontrollably, saying they were going to put him away. He thinks that the police were watching him in his room on MTV when he was originally handcuffed at our home. The tv was not on and he does not have MTV. He covers the tv to make sure no one can see him. Do you think prison will help this soul? From a scared mom.

[I had] a horrible experience both in jail and in prison. Now that my medication is working, I resent the lack of help I received.

It was terrible, my son was supposed to be taken to the hospital for evaluation, but ended up in jail untreated for 30 days.

My son was arrested and told the police he had just left a dual diagnosis facility (mental health and substance abuse) which they ignored. When sentenced, even though we provided his medications to the detention facility, it was almost a week before he received the medications and when he related suicidal ideas, he was isolated in just his underwear - nothing to read, watch or do. He had to have a pencil to request a book and because he was considered a suicide risk, could not have a pencil and of course the deputies would not fill in the request for him. It took daily calls to get his medications right and to ensure he continues to receive them.

I was trying to kill myself so the police took me to mental health clinic and from there I went to the hospital. I'm not sure if that counts as being detained, but it was just like being arrested since they used handcuffs and everything.

Sheriff's deputies told us they would try to kill our teenager if they felt threatened by him. In our community we have no mental health crisis services other than to call the sheriff. That is what the Mental Health Center instructs you to do in an emergency. Once our teenager was detained, thanks to calls to the State Mental Health Dept. expressing concerns about criminalizing the mentally ill, our teenager was sent to a residential treatment facility rather than to a boot camp or other punishment related facility. He was in the residential facility a lot longer than he would have been at a boot camp but hopefully the program was more appropriate.

Thanks to all who spoke out and shared their painful experiences with us.

Back to TRIAD's Shattered Lives Report


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