Archive for Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kansas fails in policies on mentally ill

September 11, 2008

The Lawrence Journal-World said in a recent editorial:

This can't be what state officials had in mind when they phased out the state hospitals that provided services for Kansans with serious mental illness.

The plan was that these patients would be "mainstreamed" into community facilities that would provide them a better quality of life than they had in a state hospital.

Unfortunately, that plan never was sufficiently funded and community programs have been unable to cope with the volume of clients that need far more help than they can supply.

So what happens to these people? Many of them get into legal trouble and end up in jail, even prison.

An Associated Press article in Sunday's Journal-World cited statistics from the Kansas Department of Corrections that indicated that nearly 9 in 10 inmates in state prisons suffer from mental illness.

Although corrections officials are trying to deal with these inmates, it isn't easy. Special seminars have been held in Lawrence and elsewhere to train law enforcement officials to better handle people with mental illness and try to keep them out of the legal system. They're not always successful.

Without enough support services or the state hospitals that might help them fight their mental illness, they too often end up in jail for committing crimes that might have been avoided if they had received proper treatment.

Once they are in prison, the outlook is bleak. Prisons are intended to incarcerate criminals, not treat mental illness.

The AP article describes inmates with mental illness being locked in solitary confinement for 23 hours of every day, allowed only an hour a day in an 8-foot-wide outdoor "dog run."

When they get out of prison, officials say, their mental health often is worse than when they arrived. In many cases, it doesn't take long for them to be behind bars again. It's a shameful situation for the state.

They are in prison because they committed crimes, but who knows how many of those crimes might have been prevented if people had received appropriate mental health care. How many victims might have been saved? How many tax dollars that now are being spent on prisons could have been directed to providing mental health care?

Kansas is not the only state that has taken this course, but perhaps it can be one of the first to address this problem.

Kansas leaders may have thought that closing state mental hospitals would improve the lives of people with mental illness, but in far too many cases, it has made their lives - and the lives of their victims - far worse.

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