Mental Illness

Mental illness is growing in America and beyond.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one out of every four Americans suffer from some form of mental illness. This represents just over 61 million persons. Globally, around 450 million people suffer from mental illness according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Check any major city for mental health or mental illness statistics and the same pattern holds true: Nearly one quarter of inhabitants suffer from major depression, manic depression (bipolar disorder), schizophrenia, or any number of other serious mental illnesses.

The face of Crazy. Jack NIcholson in Stephen King's, The Shining. Prior to this film, Nicholson starred in the mental illness comedy, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Source:
The face of Crazy. Jack NIcholson in Stephen King’s, The Shining. Prior to this film, Nicholson starred in the mental illness comedy, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Source:

Naturally, those with mental illness tend to cause more than the average share of disruptive behaviors in society. Thus, those afflicted with mental illness tend to have more problems with the law. In addition, because mental disorders often cause difficulties communicating in a rational manner, those suffering from a mental illness are frequently misunderstood. Behavior which appears irrational to most is often quite normal to some with mental illness. Such behaviors often result in the general public over-reacting or panicking.

As a result, law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities, and the judicial system are all coming under fire for not doing enough to ensure the security of the public and the safety of persons with mental illnesses. In this series of pages, we explore these issues from the perspective of criminal justice professionals and the public. The goal here is to determine what is being done and what can be done to better deal with the growing problem of dealing with the mentally ill.

Mental Illness and Law Enforcement Intervention

Law enforcement is often the first contact with mentally ill persons. In most instances, officers are responding to a call for help. Usually, the call is made by a well-meaning loved one seeking to help the person suffering from mental illness. Sometimes, the officers responding misunderstand the situation and rather than help the sufferer, the situation is worsened. This is not something which most police officers want to happen, but which sadly does. Thus, police departments worldwide are seeking ways to better train and prepare law enforcement offers to respond to emergency situations involving the mentally unstable.

Kicking off this series is a consideration of one situation which occurred in 2014 in a Dallas suburb. The officers responded to a situation whereby a man with bipolar schizophrenia was threatening his mother. The situation soured quickly and the man was shot dead by police. In the wake of a spate of police shootings nationwide, some are holding this situation up as an example of police brutality, but is this the case. Read A Different Perspective on an Officer-Involved Killing here.

Mental Illness and Court Intervention

The courts often become involved with mentally ill persons after a crime has been committed. Often, the person committing the crime has no recollection or understanding of the event. Generally, the courts have professional mental health experts to assist in determining legal sanity or to assist in obtaining information. However, even with the assistance of trained professionals, the courts are finding that dealing with mentally ill persons is consuming ever greater amounts of time and other resources.

Another issue which centers on the courts is the imposition of capital punishment on the mentally ill. The United States Supreme Court rule is that those with mental illness may not be executed, yet that has not stopped many court systems from carrying out such sentences. Thus, many today are strongly criticizing the courts for such convictions.

In this section, such issues will be explored in light of cases in the news.

Mental Illness and Corrections

Once a person with a mental illness has been tried and convicted, they are not generally cast into general populations. In most states, special units have been created to handle the criminally insane, those convicted who are deemed mentally ill.

However, even when special units are developed, holding the mentally ill is not without unique challenges. Those with mental illness often have compounding medical problems which must be managed. There may be prisoners within who narrowly meet the definition of mentally ill who can and will take advantage of those who are seriously ill. There is also the unpredictability of the mentally ill which presents further challenges to prison guards and other workers.

In this section, we will explore some of the issues impacting correctional facilities in America as these relate to dealing with mentally ill convicts.

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