White House Ignores Our Sons and Daughters In Jails and Prisons


I’m grateful to the Rev. Alan Johnson for writing yesterday about the White House summit on mental health. As you might imagine, I have a different take, as I explained in an editorial that USA TODAY posted online yesterday.

President Obama deserves credit for hosting a White House summit on mental health on Monday, but the White House forgot to invite the people who arguably deal daily with more mentally ill persons than anyone else.

No police officers, sheriff’s deputies, correctional officers, probation officers or judges spoke at the summit. No high ranking Justice Department official attended. Nor was there any detailed mention by the president or his hand-picked speakers about the recent mass murders committed by young men with diagnosed mental disorders in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and Tucson or on the Virginia Tech campus.

Given that the summit was prompted by last December’s Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, the aversion by the White House to actually discuss that shooting is disheartening.

By the federal government’s own admission, more than 360,000 individuals with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are currently incarcerated in American jails and prisons. More than a half million are on probation. More than a million go through our criminal justice system each year. The largest public mental facility in our nation is — not a treatment center — it is reputably the Los Angeles County jail.

How could the White House ignore these troubling statistics at a mental health summit or the frightening reality that our jails and prisons are today’s de facto mental asylums? How could law enforcement and criminal justice officials be excluded from conversations about how to reform our mental health care system? How could a presidential summit be held without anyone talking in detail about the mass killings that made it necessary?

Instead of addressing these unpleasant issues, President Obama spoke about the need to stop stigmatizing persons with mental illnesses, noting that 60% of Americans with mental illnesses do not receive treatment, often because they are embarrassed or afraid of being ostracized.

As the father of an adult son with a severe mental illness, I have witnessed first-hand how painful stigma has made his life. I’m also aware that it wasn’t embarrassment or stigma that kept him from getting help.

When my son became psychotic, I rushed him to a hospital emergency room in Fairfax County, Va., but was turned away because my son was not considered sick enough. Even though he had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness a year earlier, wasn’t taking his medication, and was talking about suicide, I was told there was nothing I could do until he actually hurt himself, someone else or me. Forty-eight hours later, he broke into an unoccupied house to take a bubble bath, was arrested and charged with two felonies.

Those felonies increased the stigma against him a hundred-fold.

The legal obstacles that I faced are not unique. There were abundant warning signs before the mass killings on the Virginia Tech campus and in Tucson, but parents and college officials felt their hands were tied by current laws.

A House investigative subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., has held three recent hearingsto examine mental illness and violence post-Newtown. As President Obama did in his summit remarks, subcommittee members have emphasized that a majority of persons with mental illnesses are not violent and that persons with mental disorders are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Rep. Murphy’s subcommittee, however, has not ignored the elephant in the room.

I testified at the subcommittee’s first hearing, which examined reasons families can’t get decent mental health care. Another witness described how his son slashed his own throat, dug a grave in the backyard and showed friends nooses that he’d made to hang himself, yet his parents’ pleas went unheeded as soon as the family’s insurance company refused to pay for additional days in a hospital. Discharged, their son killed himself. A second subcommittee hearing examined how the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act tragically kept psychiatrists from warning parents that their son was suicidal.

Last month, Murphy’s subcommittee exposed how the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), our government’s leading agency charged with addressing mental health problems, ignores serious mental illnesses in favor of more popular substance abuse programs.

SAMHSA’s three-year plan defining its priorities — a 41,804 word document — doesn’t even mention the words schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, our nation’s two most serious mental illnesses. The $3.5 billionagency has only one psychiatrist on its 574 staff and his expertise is substance abuse, not mental illness.

Meanwhile, SAMHSA spent $80,000 on a musical that featured dancers singing the songRed Red Wine, to warn its own employees about the dangers of substance and alcohol abuse.

I’m grateful that President Obama is using the White House to shine a spotlight on mental health, but the best way to reduce stigma is not by ignoring discussions about violence committed by a few or ignoring our sons and daughters who are incarcerated for committing crimes linked to their 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.


  1. lpogliano says

    Thanks again for a great critique.

  2. Jane Thompson says

    Pete, stigma and ignorance and maltreatment are all in one ball. I write books to try to address stigma and ignorance, but am not making a dent.

  3. Once again, you hit the nail on its head.

  4. Pete you hit the nail on the head. If we made a person who had a heart condition wait until his heart popped before we could “treat him” there would be a huge uproar from the nation. Why are our family members different. It seems as though its easier to talk about guns then an illness that is more prevalent then cancer. Keep talking, I will never stop.

  5. Susan Inman says

    Thank you for this clear analysis of what is happening and what should happen.

  6. Terri Wasilenko says

    Why is our nation so clueless about what to do and how to go about doing it when it comes to mental illness?? Terri

  7. I believe that one problem is that no one can really understand until someone they love becomes severely mentally ill. When my son told me one day that he might be getting kidnapped and that the dog had to sleep in his room, I thought maybe he was having an anxiety attack. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that this was the beginning of him being diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia. I had never known anyone with schizophrenia and I must admit the image I had was older homeless people acting odd. I knew nothing about the disease and didn’t realize that it strikes at such a young age. I watched my son in court today acting confused and talking to himself. He had his back to me but I could see in the judge’s eyes and others near him that they could see that he wasn’t doing that well. I tried not to but couldn’t keep from crying.

  8. BalanceDVoice says

    Thank you for posting this. It saddens me that people from the criminal justice system were not included in these discussions. Once again, there was no discussion about what happens to the individuals who are the most seriously ill. Why is there no outrage from the consumer movement about this? Are they not concerned about the sickest individuals amongst them? The silence is deafening…….

  9. J Hoeppner says

    Thank you for speaking out. SAMHSA needs to be dismantled and restaffed with people who are actually there to help. I too am the parent of a CHILD with mental illness. A 13 y.o. girl who has struggled since she was 5. Getting help for her has almost bankrupted us because “insurance” doesn’t cover the help she needs. They’ll sure take my $600/month to pay for someone else’s vasectomy reversal, but they won’t help an 11 y.o. who wants to run out in front of cars because living is too hard. The so-called summit, with all of it’s ridiculous Hollywood personalities, made me want to puke.

  10. Jeanette Castello says

    Best post yet Pete! My daughter also didn’t receive treatment when she desperately needed it not because of stigma or embarrasment but due to anosognosia – she lacked the insight to know she was ill and that treatment would help her. The laws requiring dangerousness meant that she had to wait days or weeks in a state of psychosis until treatment was provided. How cruel and inhumane our mental health system is!! I also felt the White House conference was a publicity stunt and no attention was given to the consequences of untreated severe mental illness. I hope the hearings that Rep. Murphy held will have an impact and make the changes to our broken mental health system that are desperately needed.