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Suicide Risk Among Justice-Impacted People

This piece from Thirteen.org is another look at the criminalization of mental illness in this country.

“Seven years ago, the American Psychological Association shared the National Research Council report’s findings on mental illness and incarceration, which was presented to the White House at the time. The de-institutionalization movement of the 1960s — which shut down large treatment facilities for the mentally ill — coupled with the lack of community resources to treat them, resulted in some people going to prisons and jails instead. “One study found this trend accounts for about 7% of prison population growth from 1980 to 2000 — representing 40,000 to 72,000 people in prisons who would likely have been in mental hospitals in the past.”

While it’s important to consider the fact that the de-institutionalization movement did close down much needed treatment facilities, it’s also true that many of those were about as bad as, or at least no more helpful than, prisons. It’s important to note that if you are detained in a mental health facility involuntarily, without your consent, that is its own form of medical incarceration. I also want to make it clear that by the 1980’s, de-institutionalization and lack of support services wouldn’t have been the driving reason people were incarcerated in a correctional facility instead of going to mental hospitals.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared a national “War on Crime,” and every level of law enforcement was then motivated to direct someone away from the mental health system, into the criminal justice system. This was endeavor was multiplied when President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Ac`t in 1970, and declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971. That “war” would ramp up during the Reagan administration, until 1986 when the President would establish mandatory minimum sentencing.

I wonder if the study referred to by the article started collecting data in 1980 because of theories around the effect these domestic wars were having, not only on those with mental illness, but on many intersecting marginalized communities. The “wars,” we know had a disproportionate effect on people of color and low income people, and we also know those communities are disproportionately affected by mental illness.

So, de-institutionalization was sort of a turning point in terms of specifically connecting disability/mental illness and criminal justice because it left people who needed help with no support, but then the criminal justice system purposefully oriented itself towards being more likely to criminalize someone than help them get mental health services. The situation escalated further when communities with disproportionately high rates of mental illness were being targeted by legislative racism and classism.

The article goes on to describe the disproportionate effect the situation has on women and mothers, and gives more detail about the “mental health stressors of incarceration.”

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