Shelf Life: A Criminally Insane System
Forget the sensational headlines about the mentally ill. The truth is in the alternative media.
Image by Anastasia Vasilakis
Based on what the mainstream media and an ever-growing spate of TV crime shows have to say about mental illness, one could easily sketch a sinister profile of the average specimen: He’s a murder convict, schizophrenic or perhaps bipolar, who snapped after he went off his meds and brutally killed someone with a baseball bat or an apple corer. Oh, and don’t forget the takeaway lesson: Why was he roaming the streets in the first place? He should have been in a hospital somewhere.
“The fact is that the mentally ill are rarely violent and contribute very little to overall violence in the United States,” writes psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman in “The Politics of Mental Illness,” an outstanding 24-page special report in the July-August issue of the American Prospect. But it’s easy to see why this myth needs dispelling: Friedman points to a 2005 study of 70 major newspapers that found that 39 percent of stories about mentally ill people “focused on dangerousness.”
The media would be better off reporting on the dangers to which we subject the mentally ill. Our fragmented system isn’t terribly effective or humane, and it’s not doing much more for its clients—or for the country as a whole—than the shackles and electrodes of a century ago. Today’s seriously mentally ill, particularly those who don’t have access to high-quality care, often end up bouncing between the criminal justice system, the mean streets, and overfull emergency rooms—deeply unconnected organisms that don’t play well together. Subjecting people to this scattershot system takes its toll: According to the American Prospect report, adults with mental illness who rely on public health programs have, on average, a life expectancy that’s about 25 years shorter than that of the general population.
We may have shuttered our insane asylums, but other institutions have risen in their stead: jails and prisons. Some 20 percent of adults behind bars have mental health problems—in Washington’s Spokane County jails, that’s closer to 60 percent, reports Prison Legal News (May 2008)—and, just like the rest of the incarcerated population, many are put away for nonviolent and petty offenses. But being locked up is far from a rehabilitative boon, and in a system in which rewards and punishments are based on behavior, a mentally ill individual’s sentence can easily grow longer. The Houston Press (Aug. 21, 2008) profiled the case of Alexander Hatcher, who was arrested for “criminal mischief” in 2006. Hatcher, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, racked up a whopping 53-year sentence for assault and harassment charges he accumulated in jail.
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