In a podcast today, Dr. Christine Montross examined the serious issue of how we treat those with mental illnesses. When a person calls 911 for a heart attack, the paramedic and fire department arrive. They are training to deal with medical issues. However, when we call 911 for a person acting strange or odd, possibly violent, the police respond. They are often not trained to deal with severe mental illnesses. As a result, the situation becomes dangerous not just for the person experiencing a mental break, but also for the officers. Sometimes this leads to tragic results. Our response needs to change.
The outcomes of these encounters are often compounded by the fact we no longer have mental health facilities and now house many of those who have mental illness in jails and prisons, which again are not meant to deal with mental illness. Jails and prisons have strict rules that are enforced, but those suffering from mental illness are not able to follow these rules. As a result, they accumulate negative marks and increase their time in custody, creating a cycle of incarceration.
The adversarial system of correction is difficult for both inmates and officers. The environment is negative and harsh. In a recent study, the risk for suicide among correctional officers is 39% higher than for people in all other professions. The demoralizing and dehumanizing nature of jails is one of the worst things we can do for both officers and inmates. When we realize that 95% of those in jail or prison will return to our communities, we start to see the need for a different approach and a shift in our focus. The use of research demonstrates that focus on rehabilitation, risk-needs assessments and targeted treatment for criminogenic needs is far superior. It is effective and cost-efficient.
We can look to other countries that have used the incarceration and adversarial approach previously but have switched to a focus on rehabilitation. They have not only seen a drastic reduction in recidivism but have also seen a drop in the costs associated with corrections/incarceration. With fewer people returning to prison, we can shift funding to provide for more mental health treatment facilities and other community-based resources and services that prevent the pipeline