Crime and the Mentally Ill

While many people are discussing the direct effects of a struggling economy on crime rates, some are missing a big contributing factor to this equation—the mentally ill. Mental illness, ranging from depression to schizophrenia, can increase someone’s propensity to break the law. And with community treatment options being cut across the country with strapped budgets, more and more people who would benefit from these community resources are instead being funneled into the criminal justice system.

A recent story in the New York Times did a good job of highlighting this problem—where mental illness and the police collide. While police agencies are more aware than ever about the role mental health can play in criminal behavior, they’re being called on to use this awareness more and more often.

Outpatient mental health treatment like day program centers and even group therapies have been cut in many small towns and major cities alike as local governments struggle to keep their budgets within reasonable limits. This means that thousands of people across the country who were accustomed to getting some sort of outside treatment or intervention on a regular basis are now left without a source of support.

The effects of poverty on criminality are well known. When you add to that a mental illness, the problem is only exacerbated. The mentally ill, who also happen to be poor, have suffered the most with these programming cuts, leaving jails and state prisons to become the mental illness institutions of the modern age.

Sometimes people who have been diagnosed with bipolar or schizophrenic don’t have an outlet for mental health treatment until they commit a crime and are within the custody of a department of corrections. Often their mental health could be adequately managed with simple medication assistance and a weekly therapy appointment. But when you’re poor and those resources no longer exist, your hands are tied.

There’s still a stigma attached to mental illness, though more people have such diagnosis than ever. This is unfortunate as it stops some people from asking for help until it’s too late and they can’t maintain without intervention.

If you are facing criminal charges and you know that you need mental health treatment, there are options available. Depending on the jurisdiction of your charges, you don’t have to go to jail to get counseling or treatment. Often there are still programs out there that can make treatment accessible within the community, on probation, for instance.

About David Matson