Columns 2017

We are failing the mentally ill

An article appeared in the ADN a few weeks ago reporting on the findings of a jury that Alaska’s Department of Corrections was at fault for the suicide of a mentally ill inmate. In and of itself, that’s a tragedy. But a simple sentence found in the middle of the article may actually be describing an equally appalling tragedy. That sentence reads, “The Department of Corrections is the largest mental health provider in the state.”

I know how we got here. Way back when the mentally ill were warehoused in huge facilities, the powers that be decided to close those facilities because they simply dehumanized their inmates. Instead, we were told, community mental health facilities would be erected in neighborhoods to provide care for this population and allow them to live integrated with the larger community.

And so here we are in 2017 with all those huge facilities shuttered and our jails overflowing with the people who need medical care much more than they need jailing. We are placing these vulnerable individuals in prison populations that can hold nothing but danger for them.

Let’s also pause for a moment and send some sympathy towards the correctional officers who are expected to not only handle criminal issues. They must also somehow become experts on the signs and symptoms of a mentally ill patient deteriorating and how to deal with it. I imagine if these officers had wanted to work with the mentally ill, they would have applied to work at API, not the Department of Corrections.

This situation is simply untenable. It is one that should concern us all. Yet we rarely notice or acknowledge the existence and needs of our mentally ill population unless they are negatively impacting our lives. Then we put them in jail where there is little to no real help available. We have simply turned our jails into the mental health facilities we so righteously closed down decades ago.

Mental illness is only partially understood. While some mental illness can clearly be traced through generations of a certain family, this familial tendency doesn’t give the rest of us a free pass. There is no guarantee that your child, your significant other, your parents or maybe just a friend won’t have or develop a mental illness in their lifetime. Remember, schizophrenia does not usually manifest itself until a person is in their middle to late teens and can continue to show up unexpectedly well into a person’s late twenties. So the issue you’re reading about in the paper today can be sitting at your dinner table tomorrow.

As our legislature heads back to Juneau, we will once again hear the mantra of cutting, cutting, cutting the state budget. No legislator that is propounding the cutting scenario has, to my knowledge, actually said out loud which programs they will cut, which are not needed, which can be deleted without impact. But whenever they finally do get down to the nuts and bolts of the budget and announce what they’ll cut, they find there is always a loud group of supporters that threatens their very re-election if they eliminate that program.

The mentally ill have advocates in this state from the National Alliance on Mental Illness to family who passionately advocate for their ill member. When they vocally advocate for this population, everyone nods their heads in pious agreement that we really need to do better. Then we do absolutely nothing. API gets cut. The mentally ill jailed population grows. People not directly affected by this problem go back to their daily lives figuring at least jail keeps these “dangerous” people off the streets.

There is no easy answer to the many problems encountered by a person with a mental illness. There are no quick cures. It’s a lifetime sentence for both the family and the affected individual. The stress and strain of dealing with this within a family or close-knit community is extremely high. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that mentally ill people are, in fact, as human as the rest of us. Their brains work differently through no fault of their own. Yet we feel perfectly comfortable putting them in jail as though they had deliberately and willfully acquired the illness in order to act out criminally.

We need to do so much better for this population. We need to meet their needs outside of a correctional institution. We need to re-evaluate the training we provide to correctional officers if we expect them to become mental health counselors. We need to understand that when a correctional facility becomes the largest mental health facility in a state, that state if failing an extremely vulnerable population. We need to stop failing them.