Overlooked: Stories of Mental Illness & the Criminal Justice System

Overlooked: Stories of Mental Illness & the Criminal Justice System 

People with mental illness are overrepresented in our nation’s jails and prisons. About 2 million times each year, people with mental illness are booked into jails — often for reasons related to the symptoms of their untreated illness.

NAMI believes that people with mental illness deserve help, not handcuffs. We oppose the continued criminalization of mental illness and work to ensure that every person is met with a response that preserves their health, well-being and dignity.

Our work is driven by the stories we hear every day throughout the NAMI Alliance — stories from people with mental illness and family members about their experiences with the criminal justice system. People are met with handcuffs instead of help and treatment. Family members don’t know if their loved ones are receiving needed mental health care while incarcerated. People reenter the community without the tools and support to thrive and be well. These are only a small snapshot of the shared experiences that connect people’s individual stories.

While mental health advocates know this reality, far too many people in the U.S. do not. But people and their stories cannot — and should not — be overlooked anymore.


NAMI’s Overlooked Campaign

NAMI’s new campaign, Overlooked: Stories of Mental Illness & the Criminal Justice System, focuses on the people behind the statistics.  

This campaign aims to highlight the impact of the criminal justice system on people with mental illness through personal stories from the people who lived this experience.  

“What about people that don't have a support system and they leave that jail with an untreated mental illness, having been treated poorly? Because they are behind a locked door nobody listens. I will continue to share my experience. I want to be part of the solution for people with mental illnesses that are incarcerated.”
- NAMI Advocate from North Carolina
“People tell me all the time that I ‘don’t look like I've been incarcerated.’ It makes me so mad. What does it mean to look like you’ve been incarcerated?”
- NAMI Advocate from Florida

This is an often-overlooked reality. We can help our communities understand these experiences, raise awareness of the injustices faced by too many people and advocate for equitable treatment and support rather than discrimination and criminalization.

Get Involved

You have the power to change how our communities understand and address the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system. There are four ways you can get involved today:

  • Sign the Petition: Add your name to urge federal, state, and local policymakers to decriminalize mental health in our communities. 
  • Write Your Members of Congress: Contact your federal representatives to urge them to support legislation that would help people with mental illness get the care they need after criminal justice system involvement. 
  • Share Your Story: Do you have personal experience with the criminal justice system and mental health? Share your story to power our advocacy and help raise awareness.
  • Spread the Word on Social Media: Help us lift up Overlooked stories and resources with your networks using these resources. Also consider recording and posting a short video on your social media accounts to discuss the issue or share your story.  


NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).