The Criminalization of Mental Illness

Regardless of the color of your skin, your age, where you are from, the gender you identify with, or your sexual orientation, mental illness is highly prevalent across our entire community. Mental illness can weave itself through all facets of one’s life: physical health, work, parenting, finances, caregiving, childbearing, and common daily activities.

Glenn Close once said, “It is an odd paradox that a society, which can now speak openly about unabashedly about topics that were once unspeakable, still remains largely silent when it comes to mental illness.” These words really got me thinking. Glenn is right! This is the 21st century. Gay marriage has been legalized. We are accepting new gender norms. We are trying to be more and more inclusive as a society…yet we have never made an attempt to include infinite amount of individuals who struggle with their mental health on a daily basis.

Increasing homelessness and aberrant behavior among individuals who struggle with mental illness has resulted in the criminalization of mental illness and an absurd overwhelming growth in prisons. Persons struggling simply switched from inadequate hospitals to inadequate jails. In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI, 2017), 2 million people will mental illness are booked into jails each year. That is equivalent to the populations of New Hampshire and Vermont, combined. Of those 2 million, nearly 15% of men and 30% of women live with a serious mental health condition.

Once in jail, many individuals do not receive the treatment they need and their condition ends up deteriorating, not improving. Jails spend two to three times more money on adults with mental illness that require intervention than on those without those needs. These individuals typically stay longer than their counterparts without mental illness and are at a serious risk of victimization, often leading to their mental health conditions worsening. Generally, after they leave jail, most no longer have access to needed healthcare and benefits, and their criminal record often makes it hard for individuals to get a job and/or housing. Many folks, especially without access to mental health services and supports, wind up homeless, in emergency rooms, and often re-arrested. It is a vicious cycle that we, as a society, need to stop.

Jailing individuals that endure mental illness has created and continues to create huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections, and state and local budgets. It has not and does not protect public safety. And it definitely does not help the people who truly need the police, but are being ignored.

I stand for change. Helping people get out of jail and into treatment is incredibly important to me. I believe that everyone should have access to a complete variety of mental health services and supports in their communities to help prevent negative interactions with the police. These supports should include treatment for drug and alcohol use conditions, and supports like education, housing, supported employment and peer and family support.

If individuals do come to the attention of law enforcement, society should create options to divert them to treatment and services — before arrest, after arrest, and at all points in the justice system. When individuals are in jail, they should have the right to access necessary medication and support, should be signed up for health coverage if possible, and should get help planning their release to ensure they get back on track.

How can you help?

1. Urge your county officials to “Step Up.” Sign up for The Stepping Up Initiative at This is a national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.

2. Donate to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

3. If you are a member of a national organization, demonstrate to counties that you stand behind their efforts by passing your own resolution in support of Stepping Up.