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By Scott Burpee
There has been much discussion recently about gun control after the Sandy Hook school massacre but there has been precious little about how decades of reducing and neglecting our mental health system is finally coming home to roost.
If you look at the mass shootings over the last several years two things jump out: the first is that guns were involved and second is that all the individuals had some sort of mental disorder, many of which had a brief involvement with our inadequate mental health system.
The government’s response to both is questionable. Even if no more guns were sold in this country, there are still millions of guns out there to keep killing people with and still no serious effort made to even look at what could be done at the community level to help mentally ill individuals. Unfortunately, Governor Otter is proposing $70 million to build a 579 bed psychiatric prison. In other words, we can prevent any Sandy Hook incidents in Idaho by locking up the mentally ill (at least that’s what I got from the speech).
I do agree that up to 25% of our prison population has a mental illness. Nowhere in this year’s budget proposal are there any efforts to restore, expand or improve our community mental health system, a system that is a mere shadow of services available 10 years ago.
Certainly mental illness, if untreated, can pose a danger to the general public as well as the individuals themselves. But, building another prison ($70 million for 579 mentally ill, really?) would not be an environment conducive to recovery. This proposed solution is not going to help anyone. One wonders how many prison cells we would need if the 25% had access to mental health treatment in the first place?
There is no evidence that imprisoning the mentally ill contributes to mental wellness (it makes things worse not better), nor does imprisonment address the causal factors that led to the disruptive behavior that landed them in prison.
Additionally, imprisonment is a much more expensive option than community treatment. If Medicaid pays for a mentally ill person’s treatment, approximately 70% of Medicaid is funded by the Federal government, their meds are paid for by either Medicare Part D or Medicaid, and the individual pays for their own housing and food, whether in a facility or individual housing. But, when a mentally ill person goes to prison the state has to pay for all this — with NO federal help. It is far less expensive for taxpayers to treat and support an individual with a mental illness in the community than putting them in prison. Not to mention prison ruins their already difficult life and does nothing to prevent re-institutionalization.
Looking back at the last few years of tragedies shows few of the perpetrators had behaviors significant enough to warrant imprisonment prior to their total psychotic break and the horror they unleashed. But, there is evidence that they did come to the notice of mental health professionals. If they had then gone into intensive treatment and therapy we may have been able to prevent the disasters that happened. Prison isn’t the answer. Having an honest dialog regarding ways to improve the broken mental health system we have will yield much better results and is a much more humane way to look at this problem.
Scott Burpee is the chief executive officer of the Pocatello-based Safe Haven Health Care. Safe Haven provides in-patient and out-patient psychiatric care, behavioral complex care, skilled nursing and assisted living services throughout Idaho.