but Can you imagine being arrested (or worse) for being sick? Of course not, but if you suffer from a debilitating mental disorder (i.e. brain disease) incarceration is a distinct possibility. Severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are brain diseases—biological conditions like heart disease or epilepsy, yet our county’s predominant treatment facility is a prison not a hospital. According to a new report from the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a nonprofit advocacy organization, in 2012 there were 10 times as many mentally ill people in jails in this country as in hospitals (356,000 vs. 35,000). A 1992 study of American jails reported that 29 percent of the jails acknowledged holding ill individuals with no charges against them. The ones that do, usually have been charged with minor offenses like trespassing. Yet on average, a mentally ill inmate’s incarceration is almost twice as long as other inmates charged similarly. And, that doesn’t even begin to account for a greater likelihood that they will end up being victims of abuse and violence in Prison.
The study goes on to report the financial ramifications of our failed mental health system. A mentally ill inmate costs the state approximately $100,000 a year compared to $30,000 for other inmates. So, not only is our non-treatment system illegal and inhumane, it is also a fiscal disaster.
It’s easy and convenient to think of these people simply in terms of numbers, and if thought about as people at all, the dregs of society. I personally know better. Living and working where I do allows me to have direct contact with many of the victims of our unconcern on a daily basis. I know schizophrenics who in earlier years functioned well in our society. One was a millionaire who owned his own engineering firm before his life spiraled out of control. Another used to teach photography at a college. Yet another, a 30-something individual who now lives on the streets of Grensboro and is a regular visitor to our store was once a Hollywood Director. Now his partner on his latest film is “Mother Mary” and he is shooting it with his cell phone. He wants me to be in it.
Unfortunately, mental illness, doesn’t lend itself to catchy money raising gimmicks with colored ribbons or cute phrases like, “Save the Ta Tas, and as a result doesn’t raise nearly the amount of private donations the need requires. And, until Obamacare forced their hand, insurance companies treated it as a character defect. Sadly, most people who have never experienced it either in someone close to them, or personally, think that way also. Suicides are viewed by many as a person taking a coward’s way out of life. I don’t think Robin Williams was a coward. Nor do the many doctors who claim that if suicides were accurately documented as deaths from mental illness it would be second largest cause of death from disease. It has always been with us and there are people around us everyday who suffer, many in silence. They deserve better than what we now offer them.