Opinion | Mental illness is not a crime
Mental illness is not a crime. Sadly, Colorado treats it as such.
The Gazette’s investigative series on the state’s mental health care crisis found a severe shortage of mental health care and a prison system that fills the void. As explained by Gazette reporter Rachel Riley, mental health patients land in prison and miss medication doses, sinking further into psychosis as their symptoms take hold.
“They try to kill themselves and sometimes succeed,” the article explains.
“They lash out at staff and fellow inmates in the midst of mental breakdowns, at constant risk of lengthening their sentences.”
Prison workers serve as poorly equipped de facto health care practitioners in “what critics say is perhaps the worst possible environment to treat psychiatric issues.”
Another installment in the series explains how firefighters and cops provide the first layer of care for people who end up jailed or imprisoned instead of cared for in psychiatric facilities.
“What the system does to everyone involved — it’s devastating, really,” said Stephanie Gangemi, the former mental health care director at the El Paso County Jail. “It’s trauma, day in and day out.”
The number of inmates with mental health problems in state prisons has risen steadily since the late 1990s, according to data from the Department of Corrections.
In 1998, nearly one-fourth of the state’s roughly 19,300 inmates had mental health needs. Last year, almost 40% of the roughly 29,000 people imprisoned in Colorado had mental health needs. Other findings include:
• Last year, about one-third of the more than 22,500 inmates booked into the El Paso County jail reported having mental health issues during psychiatric assessments. Nearly 6,300 of them had “mental health alerts,” flagging them as suicide risks or noting a mental health diagnosis or history.
• Today, one out of every three men imprisoned in Colorado — and four out of every five women inmates — say they have some type of moderate to critical mental health need, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections. The number of inmates with mental health needs in Colorado’s prisons has steadily risen in the past two decades, from about 4,500 in 1998 to about 10,700 last year.
• More than 300 of the state’s prison inmates have tried to complete suicide from the beginning of 2014 through the end of 2018. Thirty-four people killed themselves. Another 62 people incarcerated at the El Paso County jail attempted to take their own lives, but none were successful.
• Hundreds of other people with mental illness have been left to suffer in Colorado jails due to the shortage of state hospital beds.
This dilemma can seem helpless, but we cannot ignore it.
People with mental health issues need to receive adequate care for their conditions when they are behind bars, including access to their prescriptions. Government must staff jails and prisons with personnel adequately trained to help those with mental health issues.
When the correctional system releases mentally ill individuals, it should connect them with resources they need to become more stable. That will require a better range of treatment options, including more state hospital beds. We need the equivalent of urgent care clinics for mental health throughout our communities.
Ignoring this problem won’t save money or make it go away. It will only continue making “criminals” of people who need help. It will only increase suffering among people who need to get well, so they can serve as constructive members of society.
We can do better than this.
Colorado consistently ranks at or near the top in terms of physical health. We should all get to work this summer, by crafting legislation and other practical solutions that will make Colorado the best place for physical and mental health.
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