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System still failing the mentally ill

The Daily Progress - 2/7/2018

The Daily Progress editorial "Mentally ill in jails next issue to tackle" (Jan. 14) describes yet another example of the criminalization of persons with mental illness.

The real crime is our mental health system's failure to provide adequate care for the mentally ill. Mental illness itself is not a crime.

A 2010 study showed that, in the U.S., more mental patients were found in jails and prisons than in hospitals. Not much has changed since then. It's easier and cheaper to incarcerate people than to provide services.

This practice reminds me of what happened in the 1860s when mental patients were kept chained in prison basements. Dorothea Dix, a prison nurse, was so disturbed about this practice that she started a one-woman crusade to get state leaders to provide hospitals for more humane treatment of the mentally ill. Some states, including my home state of North Carolina, built such a hospital.

Years later, counties opened mental health centers offering day services for patients who didn't need hospitalization. Most of the mentally ill are simply not violent.

Many state hospitals have closed or at least have cut bed capacity. The 1999 U.S. Supreme Court Olmstead decision required mental patients be treated in the least restrictive setting possible.

States began discharging patients with little or no regard for the patients' readiness for discharge. Patients were taken by van at night to shelters and missions. "Greyhounding" was the practice of sending patients on buses to another area - even out of state.

Too many patients live and die on our streets. I know families who don't know if their family member is dead or alive.

Our whole mental health system is broken, and it desperately needs to be fixed. But it will never happen until the public demands it.

Leaders say, "Here's my public outcry." The mentally ill need your voice and mine to speak out against their great injustice.


Albemarle County


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