Here I sit in the conference room of the Mental Health Association of Southeast Florida, speaking to members of the rock band The Muses. This extraordinary group of (consumer) musicians have graciously agreed to meet to discuss the criminalization of persons with mental illness in America.
The conversation opens with stigma and prejudice. "Forget about it," says one band member. "You say you have a mental illness, you're done!" One told a story about an acquaintance who had not yet been diagnosed. He was arrested hauling pigs in a truck. "All people were concerned about," said this band member, "were the pigs." These highly talented musicians spoke of their experiences of "feeling invisible," "not listened to," "labeled," "judged" and "sub-human." One woman spoke of "extreme isolation" and "never feeling safe."
9MusesArtCenter is named for the nine muses of Greek mythology, the goddesses of inspiration and creativity for artists, philosophers and scientists. Funded by The Mental Health Association of Southeast Florida, this drop-in art center has been a sanctuary and refuge for many years. A creative hub where consumers can find peace and acceptance. Where professional art instructors provide the expressive outlet, and according to one band member, "a space to find out who you really are."
Our discussion shifted to the state of Texas. The Texas Legislature recently invested $2.6 billion to lift it up from 49th in the U.S. Spurred by a broken state system of mental health care and fears of mass shootings like Sandy Hook and workplace violence. Texas lawmakers were acutely clear in its policy rationale in reaching consensus. Although Texas has not opted into the Medicaid Expansion program, legislators realized it is simply too costly not to invest in mental health. According to NAMI, the economic costs of untreated mental illness tops $100 billion a year in the U.S.
Further, we may have the evidence that the criminalization of persons with mental illness and the strategic push back of the courts may finally be starting to drive rational mental health policy. As stated in The Houston Chronicle:
While services suffer, more patients than ever are being referred from the criminal justice system. Our state is stuck in a cycle where people who don't receive needed mental health services end up in courts, which then in turn send them back to receive the mental health services they couldn't get in the first place.
Have we finally turned a corner? Are the goals of therapeutic courts and related problem-solving justice strategies moving lawmakers to act despite centuries of institutional and structural policy failures? (See, Slate. R., Johnson, W.W.Buffington-Vollum., J.K., "The Criminalization of Mental illness -- Crisis and Opportunity for the Justice System," and Perlin, M.L, "The Judge, He Cast His Robe Aside: Mental Health Courts Dignity and Due Process.") It's no surprise that The Muses focused on stigma and prejudice and why they use their music to reduce stigma and restore personhood. It is everything.
As reported by The Treatment and Advocacy Center in its recent survey of persons with mental illness behind bars, research reveals, "There is 10 times more persons are in U.S. jails or prison than state mental hospitals." There is no doubt that stigma and prejudice drives the criminalization of persons with serious mental illness and in turn, the crisis of mass incarceration in this nation.
As argued by Michael L. Perlin, distinguished scholar and disability and human rights law professor, in his book, "The Hidden Prejudice," "Centuries old patterns of prejudice, based on stereotype, myth and superstition, silently denies individuals with mental illness full equality under the law." Therefore, kudos to Texas. Finally, a state has said enough, and with its bold investment in mental health, help usher in a new era of science based rational mental health care policy in America.