Mentally ill deserve care, not jail


Almost half of the Crossroads jails are filled with people suffering from mental illness.

Yes, you read that right. That's not a typo. It also is not an aberration.

Nationally, the figure is closer to two-thirds of inmates who suffer from some form of mental illness. Yes, this is a national epidemic that is tearing apart the fabric of our society.

As a community and a country, we should be ashamed of how poorly we treat people in need of our help. Instead of properly funding treatment centers, we stigmatize mental illness and instead spend billions on jails and prisons.

Clearly, what we're doing isn't working and makes no sense.

Dr. Marc Stern, who works in corrections and teaches public health in the Northeast, pointed out the absurdity of this approach in the first of the Victoria Advocate's ongoing series called "Minds That Matter."

"Some of my colleagues are like, 'If incarceration has worked so well as a treatment for mental illness and drug abuse, why don't we try it for lung cancer? Maybe we can cure lung cancer that way,'" Stern said.

You could argue the treatment of the mentally ill is better than in the last century when people were hidden away in insane asylums. The abuses committed in those places led Texas and other states to shift the responsibility for treatment to community outpatient centers, such as Gulf Bend Center in Victoria.

That approach makes sense - if the centers have sufficient money to provide the necessary care. For just one example of how out of whack our spending priorities are consider this:

Victoria County budgeted $8.7 million in 2015 to operate its jail. By comparison, the county allocated $50,000 to Gulf Bend.

Considering half of the inmates suffer from mental illness, that's a staggering misuse of public funds. No wonder these people are being jailed rather than treated.

Of course, Crossroads counties are just one small example of this huge societal problem. The state and the federal government also spend vastly more on prisons than on people.

Our jails and prisons are, by far, the biggest mental health care provider in the nation. This sad fact ought to be a national embarrassment.

We all know someone dealing with a mental health issue, or have personally struggled with it. We need to speak openly about it to remove the stigma forcing so many to struggle in silence.

If we will stand up and speak out, then gradually our national shame will be lifted. We will no longer be able to turn our backs on those in need and continue to woefully underfund mental health providers.

What we're doing now is a crime.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.

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