Saturday, March 10, 2007

Stop the Criminalization of Mental Illness

The topic below was originally posted in my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal.


Several days ago, I wrote about the prison industrial complex in America that is driven largely by profit motive rather than improving society through rehabilitation or crime reduction. One component of America’s incarceration industry is the criminalization of the mentally ill.

An example of this callous ineptitude is former Massachusetts Governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The November 27th, 2006 edition of the Worcester Business Journal, reported that the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health refused to admit any more patients to its hospitals or units. The drastic action was the direct result of cuts Romney imposed on the agency. Perhaps he did so to burnish his credentials as a fiscal conservate prior to announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

As Pam Belluck reported in the New York Times on March 8th (subscription required), 13 prison inmates have committed suicide in Massachusetts since November 2004. Yet even with troubling figures like these, Romney still forced this agency to stop admitting additional mentally ill patients. Those are people who can wind up in prison. Society pays a high price when aspiring presidents such as Mitt Romney care so little for the citizens they're suppossed to serve.

Universal health care has gained considerable traction as a political issue. Polls even show Americans are ready to pay higher taxes to end the crisis of affordable healthcare in America. It is imperative that any universal healthcare plan also expands treatment for the mentally ill. Perhaps I’m na├»ve but I believe Americans may be agreeable to accepting a substantial investment in coverage for the mentally ill as part of any package.

Celebrities have helped legitimized advocacy on behalf of mental health. Television’s Rosie O’Donnell has candidly acknowledged her personal struggles. Tipper Gore, the wife of former Vice President Al Gore was honest about suffering from depression and the importance of treatment. So has legendary journalist Mike Wallace. Credit should also be given to former First Lady, Betty Ford who shared her addiction problems with America and opened her own treatment clinic.

One Republican I’ve always had a soft spot for is New Mexico’s Republican Senator Pete Domenici. Domenici has a schizophrenic daughter and his perspective as a father helped him become a powerful advocate for the mentally ill. Yes, Domenici is a conservative and I oppose virtually everything his career stands for. True, Domenici was also recently exposed in the metastasizing scandal regarding the partisan dismissal of U.S. Attorneys by the Justice Department and should be held accountable for any laws it’s determined he violated.

Nonetheless, my soft spot for the man remains. Mental illness is an issue my family has coped with. I also have friends with mental illness in their families and appreciate anyone who has used their influence on behalf of the mentally ill. Domenici’s personal stake in the issue facilitated an unlikely friendship with the late liberal icon, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. Both collaborated on the Mental Health and Treatment Act of 2001.

Sadly, while mental illness has gained acceptance as a legitimate health concern rather than a stigma to be ridiculed, our society hasn’t progressed far enough in providing treatment to those who need it most. Remarkable, because mental illness is something that cuts across all demographics of race and class in society. Pete Domenici is a powerful conservative member of the Senate Finance Committee. I am a liberal blogger. Yet we both have this in common. Many of you reading this have mental illness in your families or perhaps suffer from it yourselves.

So many of us have loved ones with the inability to function without proper treatment or medication. We care about them and yet the effort can erode one’s spirit and will. For too many families, finding appropriate treatment, obtaining and paying for medication and fighting to prevent our loved ones from slipping through society’s cracks is a losing battle. As a result, the mentally ill often become a danger to themselves and society. The criminalization of the mentally ill has certainly contributed to the swelled populations of prisons.

Mentally ill people don’t belong in prison but when not properly treated that’s where they often wind up. An otherwise gentle soul with schizophrenia or depression that is not properly medicated may commit a violent crime. There is also the tragic case of Timothy Souders. As reported several weeks ago by Sixty Minutes, Mr. Souders suffered from manic depression and committed the crime of shop lifting. It's not uncommon for people who suffer from manic depression to get into this kind of trouble.

Sadly, the Michigan Department of Corrections was ill equipped to manage Mr. Souders special needs and he was put in solitary confinement. As the prison video featured in the Sixty Minutes broadcast showed, Mr. Sounders died from mistreatment. What happened to Mr. Souders is not an aberration. We citizens must ask ourselves, was prison really the best solution for a mentally ill person guilty of shop lifting?

How many more Timothy Souders are waiting to happen? One year ago the New York Times (subscription required) reported how the prescription drug law pushed by the Bush Administration and Republican controlled congress, contributed to a crisis in many states. Beneficiaries of Medicare who are mentally ill experienced massive delays in obtaining the medication they needed to function. Ironically, one of those supporters of this legislation was Senator Domenici.

How many of these people I wonder hurt themselves, or others and wound up in prison? Once incarcerated, as the Timothy Souders tragedy exposed, a prison is typically unable to treat mentally ill inmates effectively and many die in solitary. Some by mistreatment like Timothy Souders. Others kill themselves.

This is not a popular poll tested issue. But it’s a damn important one. Addressing it properly is not only the compassionate thing to do but pragmatic as well. As I see it, the only way is through single payer healthcare that incorporates comprehensive coverage for the mentally ill, renewed investment of mental health clinics as well as research and development into treatments and medication. Otherwise the criminalization of the mentally ill will continue unabated.

When writing about the prison industrial complex I asked if anyone cared. Today I’ll simply ask, what can we do to mobilize action against the criminalization of mental illness? Because the next person imprisoned with mental illness could be your brother.

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