For Those with Mental Illness, The System is Failing

by lizard

I’m getting out of town this weekend to celebrate my 10 year anniversary with my wife, so I probably won’t be posting anything for the next 4 days, and that’s a good thing. I’ve been keeping up with nearly daily posts for over a month, something I’m happy to be able to do, but it takes a lot to stay focused on the various failures I constantly write about.

Keeping with the theme of failure, there is no better word to describe our city/state/country’s approach to treating people with mental illness. I have more experience with this systemic failure than I can detail here, but let me say it’s beyond frustrating to know someone is a danger to themselves and others, and all you can do is wait for something bad to happen. I was reminded of that this morning, reading the Missoulian (sorry, no link, but some of you will probably figure it out).

The failure is the system, not the people within the system doing the best they can. But our collective best is abysmal. Whether we’re talking about the state hospital in Warm Springs, the Neuro-Behavioral Unit at the Providence Center, or any of our three mental health organizations (Western Montana Mental Health, Winds of Change, Three Rivers), there is more need for help than these entities can provide, and the result is too often jail, or suicide.

I didn’t expect to run across a post about mental illness and incarceration at Zero Hedge, but I found this post last night, and it describes a nearly half-century trend shifting people who can’t manage their illnesses from mental asylums to prisons:

“In every city and state I have visited, the jails have become the de facto mental institutions,” warns the president of the American Jail Association as the WSJ notes, America’s lockups have become its new asylums. After scores of state mental institutions were closed beginning in the 1970s, few alternatives materialized. Many of the afflicted wound up on the streets, where, untreated, they became more vulnerable to joblessness, drug abuse and crime. Stunningly, the number of mentally ill prisoners the country’s three biggest jail systems – Cook County, IL; Los Angeles County; and New York City – handle daily is equal to 28% of all beds in the nation’s 213 state psychiatric hospitals. “We’re finding sicker and sicker people all the time” who have to be treated for their mental illnesses. Prisons “can’t say no to the mentally ill. They have to solve the problem.”

The Zero Hedge post cites an article from the Wall Street Journal, but it’s behind a paywall. There are graphs and stats at Zero Hedge, though, that tell the story pretty starkly.

Mental Illness is a significant contributing factor to homelessness, something I hope Missoula’s 10 year plan to end homelessness takes a close look at.

I don’t want to further stigmatize a population already seen through the lens of multiple mass-shooting tragedies, but if our most supposedly vigilant military systems can’t flag and appropriately respond to the potential threat of Aaron Alexis, then we have very serious problems.

This from a NYT article two days ago:

Mr. Alexis had a history of angry outbursts over the last decade, and he had been arrested three times in three states, though he was never prosecuted in any of those episodes. Shortly after the F.B.I.’s news conference, Hewlett-Packard Company, the principal contractor on the computer services work at the navy yard, announced that it had terminated its relationship with The Experts. Mr. Alexis worked at numerous military installations for The Experts over the past year, but had started working at the navy yard just a week before the shootings.

Hewlett-Packard “has lost all confidence in The Experts’ ability to meet its contractual obligations and serve as an H.P. subcontractor,” said Hewlett-Packard’s director of global contingent labor, Henry Dreschler, in a letter to The Experts’ chief executive, Thomas E. Hoshko.

A Hewlett-Packard spokesman, Michael Thacker, declined to comment on the letter. But in an e-mail he said, “Based on what we now know about The Experts’ conduct, including its failure to respond appropriately to Aaron Alexis’ mental health issues and certain incidents recently reported in the press, H.P. has terminated its relationship with The Experts.”

A month before the shootings, Mr. Alexis told the police in Newport, R.I., that he had been hearing voices sent by a “microwave machine.” Logs from the hotel where Mr. Alexis was staying show that officials at The Experts were aware of his “unstable” condition and brought him home. But it is unclear what the company did to address his problems after that.

The Experts said in a statement that a site manager for Hewlett-Packard in Rhode Island had “closely supervised” Mr. Alexis, “including during the events” there. The company said it was “disappointed in H.P.’s decision” because it “had no greater insight into Alexis’s mental health than H.P.”

We can do better than this. And in Missoula, I know we will.

  1. JC

    Also, lets not forget that the failure of the system breeds mental illness.

    Good writeup, and have a good vaca!

  2. I also think a lot of people coming out of prisons are leaving with mental illness issues they didn’t have when they went it. But it’s always easier to put someone in a hole than ask about their feelings, right?

    The Independent mentioned this week how only something like 3 gambling counselors are in Missoula, and that every shrink in the state’s limited in the number of patients they have.

    It also doesn’t help that we’ve got such an entrenched culture of not talking about these issues in Montana. Self-reliance doesn’t lend itself much to group.

  3. Big Swede

    If 50% of mental illness is related to substance abuse then I agree with the notion of our failure.

    We fail to prosecute sellers and users and we bemoan mandatory drug testing for public assistance programs.

    Missoula is a college town and liberal college towns are druggy alkie wackjob central.

    Connect the dots.

  1. 1 Welcome to the Mental Illness Conversation, Missoulian Editorial Board | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] wrote a post in September about how the system is failing those with mental illness. That post links to an article describing the decades-long shift from treating mental illness in […]

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