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Trail 'em, Nail 'em, Jail 'em: How We Treat Mental Illness

This article can be found on huffingtonpost.com and is orginally written by

A young man suffering from mental illness is screaming incoherently at a fast-food restaurant and someone calls 911. When the police arrive, the man has not harmed anyone, is not armed, and is standing up talking to himself. 

The police bark commands at him that he does not understand. When the man does not respond, the police begin yelling and threatening him. Officers then go in to arrest the man, who does not comply with their demands for him to get on the ground. They wrestle him to the floor and charge him with resisting arrest. The man cannot afford bail so he sits in jail for 45 days before having the case dropped. This was just one of the many cases I have worked on.

There are more than 300,000 inmates in American prisons that are diagnosed with mental illness. Meanwhile, there are only around 30,000 mentally ill patients in psychiatric facilities throughout the country. If that number is staggering to you, it should be. America is "treating" mental illness through incarceration -- and the price we are paying as a country is enormous. That's why Brave New Films is releasing a new film series entitled This is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health (Part 1 available above) to open dialogue about what needs to be done to start treating mental illness as a health issue, not a crime.

The state of our mental health care system is nothing short of a public health crisis.The privatization of mental health care by the Reagan administration made access to mental health care a high price luxury as opposed to a basic human need. And thus, mental health issues are largely ignored and untreated, particularly in minority and low-income communities. The privatization of mental health happened almost simultaneously to the privatization of prisons. No coincidence.

What happens when, like any medical condition, mental illness rears its symptoms? Without community mental health programs, police become the first responders to everything from psychotic breaks to schizophrenic episodes. What should be immediately treated as a welfare issue and medical crisis for the individual experiencing the problem becomes criminal threats and illegal behavior, punishable by imprisonment.

Once in prison, many of the mentally ill receive the first treatment they have ever received. But not without being abused, neglected, and often put into solitary confinement (exasperating their condition). Guards and policeman, untrained inCrisis Intervention Training (CIT) or other mental health diversion, see their symptoms as non-compliance, not as something completely out of the person's control until they receive meds or other treatment. Sadly, while prisons provide continual triggers and violence, they are also one of the only places people with untreated mental illness have to go other than the streets. Upon release, medications and access to medications cease, and the mentally ill are left on their own. With confusing conditions of supervised release and no meds, recidivism for the mentally ill is extremely high.

This is inhumane. This is profiting off of human suffering. This must stop.

Police departments such as San Antonio and others in Portland and Richmond, California have adopted CIT training to train officers on how to be first responders to the mentally ill. They arrive in plain clothes. They do not use their command voice as they are taught in the Academy. They have learned to de-escalate the situation without use of force when they were non-violent. Moreover, they don't take the individual to jail. They take them to mental health facilities, in some places, facilities that have been created specifically for this purpose.

The outcome would shock you. Precincts were spending over $600,000 in overtime pay having to wait with individuals at the hospital for psychological evaluations. Taxpayers saved money by spending on average $350 for diversion programs per incident versus $2300 when jailing a mentally ill person. San Antonio alone saved $50 million dollars over the first five years of implementation of CIT/Diversion programs. That was including building and staffing the facilities.

As long as mental health care and prisons stay privatized, making mental illness a costly luxury for the rich and punishable by law for the middle class and poor, they will keep corporations' pockets lined. The illusion that is presented -- that treating the mentally ill with state and community centers will cost taxpayers -- is simply untrue, and in fact time and time again SAVES taxpayers' millions of dollars.

That's why cities like New York and Los Angeles and organizations across the country are fighting back. Mayor DeBlasio is launching, with the help of New York nonprofits, a task force to combat the criminalization of the mentally ill. The proposed plan includes CIT training for officers, centers that police can take people suffering from mental illness to, instead of taking them to jail, and much better coordination of medication management. This plan will save New Yorkers millions over time. Most importantly, it could save some of New York's most vulnerable citizens from being victims of systematic abuse of the poor and mentally ill.

Los Angeles County, with its largest local criminal justice system in the country, has recently announced spending $120 million to create a new Office of Diversion and Re-Entry focused on treatment and alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill. That investment will return huge dividends in human and financial capital.

Watch the Brave New Films three part series This Is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health, with new episodes released weekly, and see for yourself just how important it is to fix this problem.