By Michael DuBose
A recent Maine Voices column criticized police use of force in calls involving minorities afflicted with mental illness. However, assigning sole blame to the police for tragic outcomes gives an unearned pass to the more fundamental cause: the failure of our current mental health system to adequately treat and care for the seriously mentally ill.
While one in five adults has some type of mental health condition such as depression or anxiety, only 4 percent suffer from “serious mental illness”: that is, schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder and other conditions characterized by hallucinations, delusions or severe cognitive impairment. This 4 percent is vastly overrepresented in our homeless shelters, prisons and jails. By some estimates, 30 to 40 percent of all service calls to local law enforcement involve the mentally ill, and our prisons house 10 times more of the seriously mentally ill than do psychiatric hospitals.
It was not always this way. In 1960, the number of mentally ill hospitalized was 535,540, while only 55,362 were incarcerated in jails and prisons. By 2014, only 62,532 persons with mental illness were hospitalized, while 392,037 were incarcerated.
Well-intentioned deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has been taking place since at least the 1970s, but community treatment options have not materialized in sufficient quantity or quality. The loss of psychiatric beds in Maine has mirrored the national trend of a 20 to 30 percent reduction since 2005 alone. Of the remaining beds, over one-third are needed for forensic patients from the criminal justice system.