It’s Time to End the Criminalization of Mental Illness

October 10, 2019

Illustration of a human brain

About 46.6 million Americans live with a mental illness, so there’s a really good chance that we all know someone—a friend, a coworker, a family member—who has experienced it. Or maybe we’ve experienced it ourselves. And yet, help is hard to come by.

This lack of resources becomes even more problematic when someone experiences a mental health crisis. With nowhere else to turn, people often call the police for help. But police officers are not trained mental health professionals, and their presence can make a difficult situation even worse.

America, don’t criminalize mental illness. It’s time to stop investing in police, prisons, and jails and use that money to help people and communities instead.


It Starts at an Early Age

Studies have shown that young people are being hit hardest by America’s failure to prioritize and provide effective and accessible mental health services.

  • From 2006 to 2016, the suicide rate among 10- to 17-year-olds increased 70%
  • From 2009 to 2017, depression rose 69% among 16- to 17-year-olds
  • From 2008 to 2017, serious psychological distress jumped 71% among 18- to 25-year-olds

Despite the fact that up to one in five children may suffer from a mental health challenge, school districts all across America continue to value cops more than counselors. Police in schools do not make kids safer—and schools hire them at the expense of counselors and other trained health professionals. We think students and young people deserve better.


Police and the Mentally Ill

When someone has a mental illness, it should be far easier, and more affordable, than it is today to get help. And when someone is experiencing a full-blown mental health crisis, cops shouldn’t be the first responders.

In New York City in 2015, the NYPD responded to 300 such calls every single day. Unfortunately, these encounters do not always end well. In fact, nationwide, hundreds of mentally ill people are killed by police every year. (Those with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than other people to be killed by law enforcement.)

The vast majority of people with mental health challenges are no more likely to be a safety risk than anyone else (only 3-5% of violent crimes can be attributed to a person with a mental illness) and what they need is better treatment, not prison. Unfortunately, up to 2 million people with mental illness are locked up annually. And the last place someone with mental illness should be is behind bars.


No Help Behind Bars Either

One look at these numbers from a Justice Department study and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, in America, we’ve basically criminalized mental illness.

  • People in state prisons with a mental health problem: 56.2%
  • People in federal prisons with a mental health problem: 44.8%
  • People in local jail with a mental health problem: 64.2%

There’s a racial component to this crisis as well. People of color, while more likely to be locked up than white people, are less likely to be diagnosed with mental illness AND less likely to receive treatment for mental illness after being incarcerated.

Many mentally ill people cannot access the help they need and get worse behind bars. And if they’re ever released, their prison record and their illness make it even more difficult to get treatment, so many wind up homeless or back in jail.


It’s Time for Change

Right now, our system has it all backwards. We treat schools like penitentiaries, cops as mental health professionals, and jails and prisons as mental health facilities. That doesn’t make any sense.

Students are under a lot of stress—they need counselors, not cops. The earlier they get help, the better their chances. Among adults, the mentally ill far too often can’t find or afford treatment. They need accessible community-based services that will allow them to receive help surrounded by supportive friends, family, and doctors.

Are you ready to help make that happen? Will you tell our political leaders that we want to stop pouring money into prisons and police and instead support our communities? Then join the movement today.