Maggie Gorczyca, Better Living Center Social Worker at The Fortune Society

Fortune Speaks Up For How We Treat Mentally Ill Individuals Who May Have Committed A Crime

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently launched a $22-million mental health initiative to reach mentally ill people who are prone to hurting themselves or others. However, about $5 million of this funding will go to increase security around and inside homeless shelters.

Some people would describe mentally ill people as dangerous, as the media’s focus on the mental illness of the perpetrators of mass shootings from Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, and other tragedies, seems to associate mental illness with violent crime. In fact, “the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from a mental illness” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) and individuals with severe mental illness are 2-1/2 times more likely to be victims of crime than the general population. The misinformation of the link between mental illness and violence has resulted in society’s belief that those who are mentally ill are perpetrators of crime and are deserving of being locked up. It is, therefore, not surprising that a movement to launch a mental health initiative would include a budget of over 20% on security.

The history of treatment of mentally ill individuals in this country is disturbing.

In the 1800s, Dorothea Dix wrote about the horrifying living conditions of imprisoned individuals with mental illness and stated: “The condition of human beings reduced to the extremist state of degradation and misery cannot be exhibited in softened language or adorn a polished page … confined within this Commonwealth in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens; chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience …”

Decades later, we continue to confine mental illness and isolate those individuals whose disease may prevent them from understanding their behavior and current situation. Although as a society we no longer condone the beating and lashing of mentally ill, we continue to approve their lock up by remaining silent on their oppressive treatment in prisons and jails. In the debate on criminal justice in the United States, we must speak up on how we treat mentally ill individuals who may have committed a crime.

There must be a different course of action taken when a mentally ill person has committed a crime that should not include serving time in jail — and isolating them once they are in the system. A budget of $22 million — with $5 million for security — is counterintuitive as policing mentally ill people and placing them in prisons or jails due to behavior linked to their diagnoses only further stigmatizes this population.

Mayor de Blasio’s budget should include restorative justice programs, mental health programs within schools and communities, reduced fare of public transportation, housing, and more.

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