Before You Vote, Question Candidates

Bob Carolla at the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been tirelessly lobbying editors, bloggers, and columnists to ask candidates in the upcoming November elections about the need for mental health reforms. Because of the recession, many states are cutting budgets and mental health funding often is an easy target.

We need to stop that from happening. 

Carolla and NAMI are wisely pointing out that cutting the budgets for mental health programs is counter-productive, especially when those cuts lead to persons with chronic illnesses ending up in jails and prisons because of a lack of adequate community services.

That’s a point that I stress too in my speeches. Rather than cutting much needed funds, we need to spend the money that we have allocated for mental health more wisely on programs such as Housing First that get people off the streets and help. That is more humane and smarter than paying for folks to languish in jails and prisons where their mental condition will likely get worse, not better.

When I did my research in Miami, there were 1,200 inmates in the pre-trial detention facility with severe mental illnesses. They cost that city $100,000 per day. For half that amount, the city could provide them with housing and a ACT team (Assertive  Community Treatment) and actually help them get better while saving tax dollars.

One of the fact sheets that NAMI is distributing lists the number of persons in each state who have a diagnosed mental disorder and are currently in jail. If you care about mental illness reforms, you might want to share this fact sheet with the politicians in your area. You also might wish to mention that during any given year, one out of four Americans over the age of 18 will suffer from some sort of mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

That’s one heck of a lot of voters! Our votes should matter and stigma should not keep us from making our concerns known.

Here are the facts:

About two million people with serious mental illness are booked into local jails each year. About 30 percent of female and 15 percent of male inmates in local jails have serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The majority of arrests are for non-violent offenses such as disturbing public order or property offenses. Many have been homeless.

Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system also experience mental health disorders, with 20 percent experiencing disorders so severe that their ability to function is significantly impaired.

In prisons, almost 25 percent of inmates live with serious mental illness, but their conditions are often under-treated—or not treated at all. Harsh conditions, including isolation and noise, can “push them over the edge” into acute psychosis. An estimated 70,000 prisoners suffer from psychosis on any given day.

Fifty percent of people with mental illness who have previously been in prison are rearrested and returned to prison not because they have committed new offenses, but because they have been able to comply with conditions of probation or parole—often because of mental illness.

In prison, people with mental illness often lose access to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits. Even when benefits can be restored upon release, reapplying for can be time-consuming and complex. Without case management and community assistance, individuals with mental illness are at risk of requiring costly emergency medical services or ending up back in prison.

Based on a comparison of two programs in Illinois and New York, between approximately $20,000 and $40,000 per persons can be saved by providing the mental health care than putting a person in jail.

Adults with Mental Illness in Prison by State;

rounded to 100 (excludes local jails)

Alabama 7,100  
Alaska 700  
Arizona 8,900  
Arkansas 3,500  
California 41,400  
Colorado 5,600  
Connecticut 3,400  
Delaware 1,000  
DC    NA  
Florida 24,600  
Georgia 12,600  
Hawaii 1,000  
Idaho 1,700  
Illinois 10,900  
Indiana 6,800  
Iowa 2,100  
Kansas 2,000  
Kentucky 5,100  
Louisiana 9,100  
Maine 500  
Maryland 5,500  
Massachusetts 2,400  
Michigan 11,700  
Minnesota 2,300  
sissippi 5,200  
Missouri 7,200  
Montana 900  
Nebraska 1,100  
Nevada 3,100  
New Hampshire 700  
New Jersey 6,200  
New Mexico 1,500  
New York 14,400  
North Carolina 8,200  
North Dakota 300  
Ohio 12,400  
Oklahoma 5,800  
Oregon 3,400  
Pennsylvania 11,800  
Rhode Island 600  
South Carolina 5,600  
South Dakota 800  
Tennessee 6,500  
Texas 37,700  
Utah 1,500  
Vermont 400  
Virginia 9,200  
Washington 4,300  
West Virginia 1,400  
Wisconsin 5,100  
Wyoming 500  

Before you vote, find out what your local candidates are saying about the criminalization of persons with mental illnesses.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.