The Criminalization of Mental Illness
by Jerry Blassingame & Allie Hargrove
A person with a mental illness is more likely to be incarcerated than to receive medical help. We incarcerate about two million people a year who have some sort of mental illness. My story is a prime example: as a young five-year old boy, my mother was murdered in the room next to me. No one ever counseled me or my siblings about the trauma we experienced. I lived my entire childhood with undiagnosed PTSD. Although I graduated high school and even made it to college, eventually I ended up in prison for 3 ½ years. Over half the people in prison share similar stories of trauma. Bryan Stevenson writes in his book Just Mercy that over 50% of people in prison have been diagnosed with mental illness, and that one in five people in jail have a serious mental illness.
So what happens when someone struggling with a mental disorder is released? Without adequate treatment, recidivism is an imminent concern. We have replaced psychiatric hospitals with prisons and jails. This was caused by the deinstitutionalization in the late 20th century. The plan was to reduce the population size of mental institutions by shortening stays and reducing admissions. No one got the memo that we should not be incarcerating citizens because of the lack of aftercare. During the same time, there was a boom in prescribing psychiatric drugs to manage psychotic episodes and reduce the need for patients to be confined and restrained. I do believe in patient freedom, but we need aftercare services and clinics that can hold patients accountable for taking medication. Inconsistency in medication can lead to detrimental outbreaks. These episodes are the ones that cause individuals to be arrested or rearrested.
As we consider the needs of those returning back into society from prison and jails, we must confront mental health concerns. The average transitional housing or reentry program is not equipped to deal with the daunting mental health crisis we have in our communities. As Soteria evolves, we are putting mental health at the forefront. Many individuals leave prison struggling with PTSD, depression, antisocial personality disorder, schizophrenia, or a combination of disorders. Due to overmedication in prison and mental health stigma, interns can be hesitant to engage in mental health treatment. Through current and potential partnerships with United Ministries and Mental Health America of Greenville County, Soteria is working to normalize mental health and provide treatment options including medication and counseling.
Twenty years ago, when I started Soteria, I had no idea that this organization would come face to face with the realities of untreated mental health conditions; however, Soteria is now prepared to engage in the fight against mental health stigma and encourage interns to utilize counseling options from community partners.