The re-institutionalization and criminalization of people labeled with ‘mentally illness’

The Sacramento Bee has started a disturbing opinion piece series, coupled with a forum, in The Conversation: A Journey Into Darkness. The editorializing of this article focuses on one specific case of a young man labeled with “mental illness”, and his families alarm over the situation this young man has created for himself. From this specific case the opinion piece then proceeds to generalize about all cases without reference to any other specific cases.

I personally favor deductive reasoning over such inductive methods. As we haven’t made this case the rule simply by treating it as such, it is always possible that it could be exceptional.

The father of this young man has taken to lobbying the state for more draconian mental health laws. He is trying to get a law enacted to force psychiatric drugs on people who have no desire to take such drugs.

I didn’t like him as a Governor (I was in California for a small amount of time back then), and I liked him even less as a President, but Ronald Reagan may be deserving of a little praise for some of the things he did while he was around.

In the 1960s, California had 14 state hospitals that housed 36,000 patients. Gov. Ronald Reagan pushed to empty the facilities, and found allies among conservatives who saw a chance to save money, and liberals who saw abuses and sought to grant patients greater rights. They emptied the hospitals, but never sent money to counties to fund community care.

Okay, and excluding the possibility that perhaps Ronald Reagan has been given much undue credit…

The state hospital population fell to 3,410 patients by 1995. The pendulum is swinging. The population under the care of the California Department of Mental Health is expected to reach 6,324 next year.

Subtract 3,410 patients from 36,000 patients, and you get 32,599 patients who were no longer held in the state hospitals. This isn’t magic. They didn’t need to be there in the first place. Subtract 6,324 patients from 36,000 patients, and you get 29,676 patients. Either way, this represents a vast improvement over the 1960s.

We’ve now come to the scary part of the equation.

However, the mix is very different. Twenty years ago, half the people in the few remaining state hospitals had committed no crime. Now, 92 percent of the patients are in for Penal Code violations. Many thousands more severely mentally ill people are housed in state prisons.

When 92 % of the patients in California psychiatric institutions are now forensic patients, the authorities must be using criminal law, petty or otherwise, with more frequency than ever before to detain people in the mental health system.

Many ex-patient advocates will tell you that they were once labeled “severely mentally ill” themselves. The line between the person with a “major mental illness” label and the person with a “minor mental illness” label is not as broad as some people may imagine it to be. People recover from “serious mental illness” labels, they join the ranks of the mentally well, and they get on with their lives. More funding for community mental health programs might help, provided those programs were effective. Such is not always the case. This matter is actually about intolerance and criminalization, and those are the issues that should be addressed in any discussion of this sort.