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From Asylums to Prison: How to fix our broken Mental Health SystemNatasha McKenna, a 37-year-old Fairfax County, Virginia woman suffering from mental illness, died in jail after being tasered by police.

The NAACP has a point that tasers should not be allowed to be used on mentally ill people, but the real issue is why Natasha was in jail and not in a treatment facility. The mentally ill have no place in jails because they need care, not incarceration. Across the nation, our prison system is the main provider of mental health care. A prison is no place for a person with mental illness.

Fifty years after Kennedy closed the asylums, we are still doing no better. We just replaced the asylums with prisons. Currently, about 2 million people with mental illness are in jail across America; that is a number 10 times[*] greater than the number of patients in psychiatric beds across the country. The issue here is that since they are locked up without proper treatment, they will end up being brutalized in jail and then returned to the streets and our communities.

The mental health treatment problem begins way before incarceration

Currently, in a majority of mental health crises, the police are called. As a result, far too often, just like the case of Natasha McKenna, there are tragic consequences. The police have not been trained to handle mental health crises. As a result, the person in crisis will most likely be arrested and jailed.

I have no problem with police being the crises intervention first responders.  However, there is a need for better training and more alternatives to jail for that mentally ill person in crisis.  A person who might be processed into a mental health treatment facility will, at very least, be more stabilized before going into the prison system. In the Natasha McKenna case, if she had been admitted to a mental health facility, she might still be alive. Unfortunately, for Natasha McKenna, her mental health crisis led her to be tasered and ultimately brought her to her death.

The sad part is that this is a very fixable problem.

From Asylums to Prison: How to fix our broken Mental Health SystemIt only takes a plan and money to fix the problem. The plan is easy! Build more mental health facilities to treat the more than 44 million Americans who will suffer from a mental illness each year. We need better research, treatments, and more professionals trained to work with people with mental illness. Develop better training for police on how to recognize and handle a mentally ill person. No more arresting the mentally ill and putting them into a holding cell!  Patients can, and should, be taken to mental health centers for treatment.

Lastly, a special court system designed for non-violent offenders with mental illness and drug abusers needs to be developed. The court can utilize its powers to force treatment and follow the progress of that treatment.  After completion, the records can be thrown out. I have seen the effectiveness of these courts. The way these courts work is one can opt into the program. Over the course of the program, a judge will schedule periodic drug screenings and hearings to follow up on the person’s progress. If the person fails to comply with the program, they go directly to jail. If, however, they do complete the program, the record of the crime is disposed of.

Therefore, the question is how to pay for all this.  That is easy; the money is already there. We spend billions on locking up 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The reduction in jail population will pay a good chunk. Jail is the least cost effective way to treat the mentally ill. Currently, we waste 193 billion dollars on lost earnings[†] alone because of our lack of mental health treatment.

The fact remains that Natasha died a preventable death. Let’s help her change the system that leads to so many people dying. By actually tackling the problem, we can create a safer and happier society. Let us not allow Natasha, and far too many like her, die in vain. We can create a mental health system that treats rather then punishes people for being sick.
[*] Lewis, R. (2014). US prisons home to 10 times as many mentally ill as in state hospitals. Al Jazeera America.

[†] National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health by the numbers.

David Fishman

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