It is estimated that 20.5% of persons 18 or older suffer from a mental illness in the state of Michigan. Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 5.2% of Michiganders suffer from a serious mental illness, which they defined as “substantial functional impairment” caused by the disorder. Not only do many people suffer from mental illnesses, as these statistics reveal, but many persons suffering from mental illness are placed into jails and prisons.
In 1961 President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act, which propagated the process of deinstitutionalization, releasing mentally ill individuals from psychiatric hospitals into the community to seek treatment from Community Mental Health Centers (CMHCs). While this was a great step towards protecting mentally ill individuals’ rights, communities were not ready to treat the masses.
So where have individuals suffering from mental illnesses gone if they are not receiving treatment in psychiatric hospitals? Unfortunately, many are circulating through the jails and prison systems, often due to petty crimes. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that approximately 11,700 adults with mental illnesses were incarcerated in Michigan prisons in 2008. Prisons are ill equipped to treat individuals suffering from mental illness. Additionally, the environments of jails and prisons can potentially exacerbate symptoms of mental illness, such as paranoia or anxiety. Imagine being thrown into prison and the possible anxiety or paranoia you would experience. Now imagine how much worse it would be if you suffered from a diagnosable mental illness, such as schizophrenia or an anxiety disorder.
One method to respond to mental illness and crimes is the Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity plea. The National Alliance on Mental Illness supports the “insanity defense” and believes that treatment needs to be utilized instead of punishment. While many crimes committed by individuals with mental illness are petty crimes, there are the rare, violent crimes. In Michigan, the insanity defense is utilized and individuals can be sent to facilities that focus on treatment instead of punishment, such as the Center for Forensic Psychiatry or Walter Reuther Psychiatric Hospital. Unfortunately, the insanity defense is not always properly utilized. One such instance is the conviction of Mark Becker in 2010. Mark Becker was charged with the murder of a prominent high school football coach, Ed Thomas, in Iowa. Mark Becker suffered from paranoid delusions and vivid hallucinations revolving around Ed Thomas, believing that he was Satan. Despite the evidence that Mark Becker suffered from a severe mental illness and killed Ed Thomas due to his paranoid delusions, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
This is just another example of our criminalization of mental illness. We continuously embrace punitive tactics instead of ones that encompass treatment. This has many advocates for the mentally ill seeking alternatives. One such alternative that could be utilized is Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), which can be very effective when law enforcement encounter people with mental illness in crisis. With CIT, the law enforcement officers have a background in mental health and are properly trained to respond to crises. Additionally, it promotes safety for both the officer and the individual, and encourages access to mental health treatment instead of simply arresting the individual. While this tactic will not solve the criminalization of mental illness, it is one step in the right direction. Implementing CIT will assist the population of mentally ill persons by keeping them out of jails and prisons, which only exacerbate their symptoms. Additionally, it will help the entire state of Michigan by preventing prison overcrowding. We need to make our mentally ill populations a priority by putting preventative methods, such as CIT, into place. You can help by contacting your representatives in Lansing and voicing your opinion about the criminalization of the mentally ill and how CIT could prevent further criminalization. The consequences of not speaking up are that people with mental illnesses will continue to go without treatment, and may possibly enter our jails and prisons.
-Rebecca Zauel is a MSW Candidate at the University of Michigan School of Social Work