If someone you love forgot where they were and became terrified, who would you call?
For cash-strapped communities across the country, the first and only option for people with a loved one suffering a mental health crisis is to call 911. Police are frequently then the first to respond, a situation that too often leads to handcuffs and a jail cell.
The state of mental health services in this country is unacceptable. Instead of social workers, we have armed law enforcement officers. Instead of treatment facilities, we have prisons and jails. More than 450,000 people behind bars have shown recent symptoms of mental health problems. The Cook County Jail in Chicago is now the biggest single-facility provider of mental health services in the country.
But correctional control isn’t helping. Many people leave the system worse off, having gone without treatment and services that could have changed the course of their life. Too often, this means they keep coming back instead of getting better.
It’s time to cut out the middleman. People shouldn’t have to be arrested and thrown in a cell to get treatment. That only adds cost and wastes time. People should get the help they need, as quickly as possible.
Right now, Congress is considering a law that would treat mental illness like a health problem, not like a crime. We need to urge legislators to pass H.R. 4574, the Strengthening Mental Health in Our Communities Act.
This bill puts the focus of mental health reform where it belongs: on the gaps in community-based services that cause many thousands of people with serious mental illnesses to experience crises, become homeless, or endure needless institutionalization or incarceration due to the unavailability of needed help. It would also create additional funding to train police officers in how best to respond to mental health crises, taking people directly to services instead of arresting them. The bill also recognizes the importance of protecting the civil rights of those struggling with mental illness.
It’s time to stop treating mental illness like a crime.