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Mental Illness Doesn’t Have to Become a Jail Sentence

In a story titled “When Mental Illness Becomes a Jail Sentence” for The Atlantic, author Paul Tullis describes scenarios where people with mental illnesses end up in jail. Instead of incarceration, these people should be receiving treatment for their mental health conditions. “Arrestees who are mentally incompetent to stand trial are supposed to be sent for treatment,” says Tullis. “But thousands are being warehoused in jails for months without a conviction.” It doesn’t have to be this way. People dealing with mental illnesses deserve better than what they are being given. Mental illness should not equal a jail sentence. 


Tullis begins his story with an anecdote about a man who had a welfare check called on him after taking another customer’s food order and was “acting very irrationally.” When the responders arrived to check on the man, “they loaded him in to bring him to the emergency department of the nearest hospital.” A small altercation occurred, and later on, the man “received a felony summons to appear in court.” The judge had decided that the man “posed a danger to himself and others, based largely on social-media posts, and ordered him to be taken into custody.” The man had been found incompetent to stand trial. Therefore, he was to have received psychiatric treatment until he was competent to present himself to the court. This, however, did not happen. The man was taken out of court in handcuffs, was housed in a state jail for 55 days, and received no psychiatric treatment. 


Unfortunately, this man’s situation is not rare. The man’s mother discovered that “his experience was just one instance of a problem playing out across the U.S., in which people who should be placed in mental health facilities for treatment are instead detained in jail for unconstitutionally long periods — sometimes months — before they have been convicted or even tried for any crime.” Without access to treatment, these people’s conditions often get worse and worse. People have taken their lives in jail cells because they are left without help when they so desperately need it. This is a senseless lack of care, and it’s leading to suffering and death. Things need to change. 


In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, which sought to improve outpatient treatment. Unfortunately, “those programs were never adequately funded, and in fiscally constrained times, services for people with mental illness have been cut further.” Those with mental illnesses have been put on the back burner and forgotten about in times of need. “‘Jails are by design not suited to providing for the special needs of’ individuals with mental illness, wrote Danna Mauch, CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health. ‘These are distinctly nontherapeutic settings lacking the access to treatment staff and treatment interventions responsive to their complex behavioral health and disability services needs.'”


Here’s the thing: mental illnesses do not have to be a jail sentence. It’s time we hold institutions accountable and expect that states follow the laws. After all, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that no unfit person should be jailed for more than seven days. It’s time we expect the best for those who are dealing with a disease. Let’s all be better.


Villa Tranquil Recovery is committed to being better and working toward the force for good. If you are struggling with a mental illness or addiction, we will treat you with the compassion you deserve. Call us now at 214-799-3080. We want to help you. Call now.