Let's Make Sure History Doesn't Repeat Itself

Jails have become America's biggest mental health institutions. An estimated 2 million people in the USA with serious mental illnesses are incarcerated every year. To put it in perspective, this number exceeds the populations of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Making matters worse, people with serious mental illnesses remain in jail far longer than those charged with comparable crimes but not facing such challenges.

Jails and prisons are some of the worst places to house or attempt to treat people with serious mental illnesses, yet we continue to use them as dumping grounds to hide an unwanted responsibility -- our obligation to address mental health on the community level. The irony is that many who end up incarcerated would not likely find themselves in such a situation if they had received appropriate mental health services and supports in the first place. Regrettably, in many parts of the country, these community-based services are scarce.

There is some hope. Growing bipartisan efforts to pass sentencing reform for those incarcerated for non-violent offenses could also spur sweeping action on addressing the needs of people struggling with serious mental illnesses.

Congress, for example, should pass legislation quickly that encourages alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenses when mental illness and substance use disorders are factors. Several bills are supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, including the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015 (S. 2002) and the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015 (HR 1854; S 993).

Our leaders in Washington should seize the moment and also approve comprehensive mental health reform legislation currently pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Both the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 (HR 2646) and the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015 (S 1945) have bipartisan support because they would improve access to mental health care.

And last but not least, Congress should adopt the Obama Administration's request for $25 million for new supportive housing units for people with severe disabilities, including serious mental illnesses. Safe, decent, affordable housing is already recognized as the cornerstone for recovery for people who are homeless for long periods of time due to serious mental illness and substance use disorders. Getting them off the streets and into stable housing is big step on their path to stability and greater self-sufficiency.

Let's not repeat the mistakes of the past -- when those in state mental hospitals and institutions were released from inhumane conditions with promises of housing and services in the community but then officials at every level failed to follow through. That's why our jails have become de facto mental health wards today.

For individuals with serious mental illness, the time has come for a better deal. Congress must focus on enacting reforms that deliver housing and effective services in our communities rather than behind bars, where we know the results are appalling.