“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but bias and stigma shames us all.” — President Bill Clinton, 1999
Ventura County is now one step closer to addressing the needs of its mentally ill. Unfortunately, the system by which certain mentally ill can get help in this case starts with a crime. The California Board of State and Community Corrections authorized this month the $29.4 million to build a $61 million medical and mental health facility at the Todd Road Jail near Santa Paula. In November, the board had approved a partial grant of $25.6 million for the 64-bed unit. Ventura County Board of Supervisors allocated $6 million to complete the funding. While this is good news, that the some of the incarcerated mentally ill will be able to get the help they need (as countless studies show that incarceration alone does little to nothing to help them or reduce recidivism), the fact remains that caring for the mentally ill is a complicated process. But is this best we can do?
According to the National Institute of Corrections, in 1959, nearly 559,000 mentally ill patients were housed in state mental hospitals in the United States. By the late 1990s, after a shift to deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill, the number of people housed in public psychiatric hospitals dropped to approximately 70,000. When it comes to statistics, such a decrease might seem like a good thing but a 2006 special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails. Further, a 2014 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, using 2004-2005 data, showed that over three times as many seriously mentally ill persons were in jails and prisons than in hospitals. So much for deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill.
Not all mentally ill are incarcerated. Many of them end up homeless. Because the national homeless count is relatively new (the collaborated effort began in 2007), data revealing how the homeless population has changed since the movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill is essentially nonexistent. Homeless advocate agencies, however, estimate roughly one-quarter of the homeless population are seriously mentally ill. In Ventura County, the homeless survey reported showed that the 23.3 percent of the population has mental health issues. It also showed that 48 percent of the chronically homeless had mental health issues.
As plans begin to take shape for the Todd Road Jail, we must ask ourselves, are incarceration or homelessness the only answers? Certainly, there are many laws that protect individual rights for involuntary hospitalization so, as a society, these solutions may just be the last resort. What is really needed is a societal shift in how we view mental illness. Until we accept mental illness as regular part of our society, until we value those who have mental illness as much as we do anyone else, those who need help will continue to resist it, commit crimes, live on the street, etc. We must be willing to change our views and change the dialogue or we will only continue to see more of the same undesirable results for our mentally ill.