Additional Mental Health Services Will Make Us Safer

by John Morganelli

It seems like almost every other day we hear of someone with mental illness walking into a public place armed with a firearm and killing innocent people.  After every such tragedy, there are calls for more gun control and we ask how someone with obvious mental illness can ever get a gun.   But what is often overlooked is our inadequate commitment to provide the needed services and resources for those who are truly mentally ill.  Public policy changes years ago resulted in the closing of many mental health institutions.  Many people who were therein confined were released into the general public without adequate outpatient supervision.

According to a study done in 2010, there are more mentally ill citizens in prisons and jails in the United States then in hospitals.  Pennsylvania has the sixth highest total number of prisoners in jails and state prisons.  Approximately 16% of that total number has a mental illness.  It is estimated that 26.2% of Americans age 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.  Many studies suggest that more than 2 million times annually,  people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, are arrested and booked into jails in the United States.  Today, more and more mentally ill people are being sent to jail instead of receiving the mental health care they need.

Mental Health Courts are one of many initiatives launched in the past number of decades to address the large number of people with mental illnesses involved in the criminal justice system.  Without adequate treatment while incarcerated or linkage to community services upon release, many people with mental illnesses often recycle through the criminal justice system.  But mental health courts represent just one response to the disproportion of number of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system.

The establishment of Mental Health Courts although critical to reducing the number of individuals with mental illness in Pennsylvania correctional institutions is not the only answer.  The goal should be to prevent these types of defendants from committing more crimes.  That can only be done by a refocus on mental health services in all communities.

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