Is Treatment the Best Option for Reducing Prison and Homeless Populations?


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The United States has an unusually high percentage of its population behind bars, and over a half million of our citizens are homeless, many of them chronically so. There are a number of reasons why the prison and homeless populations in the United States are so high. One factor is that both of these groups include a high number of people who suffer from serious mental health issues. These are individuals who, for a variety of reasons, cannot find adequate treatment. A lack of diagnosis and proper treatment is the cause for many of these people to end up on the streets and in the prison system at a disproportionate level.

How Does This Happen?

How do people with mental health problems end up homeless or incarcerated? For one thing, there is a social stigma at play, which can make it difficult for people to seek help. Fear of being ostracized can keep people silent. This can happen in the family structure, in the education system and in the job place. What is even more damaging, however, is the discrimination at the government level. Medicaid and Medicare laws have allowed for mental health services to be gutted and rendered ineffective. Since the 1960s, the federal government has followed a program of de-institutionalizing public mental health facilities. It has been left up to states to provide support, but the money has not been funded for the necessary treatment programs, and the choices the afflicted are forced to make often lead them to the streets, prisons, emergency rooms and the morgue.

The Burden of the Homeless

Individuals who are unable to obtain treatment have little alternative than to pursue self-medication through the use of drugs and alcohol. Their mental state, compounded with these chemicals, can render them unemployable and unable to function in society. They can lose their jobs, their friends, families and homes and be forced out onto the street. Once there, they can become a strain on governmental services. While rare, undiagnosed and untreated mental health afflictions can also result in violent outbreaks. These problems create a vicious cycle that feeds on itself. The burden to the taxpayers, and to society in general, is tremendous. Homeless people who are not treated for their mental problems may end up in the emergency room or in jail where their care will become a problem of the state. The financial burden doesn’t go away and money could be better spent on treatment.

Overcrowded Prisons

Our failure as a country to properly address mental health issues has resulted in a crisis of overcrowded prisons. With only five percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population. It has been estimated that 20 percent of the U.S. prison population suffers from a serious mental illness. People who suffer from mental illnesses are also three times more likely to end up in prison than in a mental health facility. The result is a high number of mentally ill prisoners who are not getting access to health care. U.S. prisons are being built, not to rehabilitate or to treat drug addictions or mental health issues, but simply to serve as human warehouses. Once released, many will return to the streets in worse condition.

The Effects on Society

Ten million Americans are afflicted with some form of mental illness. When these diseases go undiagnosed and untreated, they can have catastrophic results. One need only a passing awareness of the news in recent years to know of the mass killings that have been perpetrated by individuals who suffer from serious mental illness that have gone largely untreated. While it may never be possible to fully prevent these sorts of incidents, the likelihood of them occurring would be drastically reduced by proper intervention and treatment by mental health professionals.

Treatment and Education

The funding for treatment of mental health patients has shrunk at every level. The federal government has set up barriers against treatment by writing laws that prevent people from access to mental health care. Without federal financial support it becomes much harder to fund mental health care on the state level and many psychiatric facilities have closed as a result. This form of institutionalized discrimination has devastating effects on the population. It creates a burden on taxpayers who must pay to house prisoners or pay for emergency medical treatment, and a burden on society as we witness the tragic results of untreated illnesses. An effort must be made to fund mental health care and make access to treatment as easy as it is for physical ailments like a sprained ankle or the flu. Only then will be able to tackle the larger issues of overcrowded prisons and a growing homeless population. One way to tackle these problems is by advancing Representative Tim Murphy’s Mental Health Crisis Act.

Via Huffington Post 

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