Are They Mentally Ill, Brain Injured or Just Criminals?

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Hands through bars

Sarah Varney with Kaiser Health News in collaboration with PBS News Hour recently published a report on the rate of mental illness among incarcerated men and women.  The statics are sobering:

  • In state prisons, 73% of women and 55% of men have at least one mental health problem
  • In federal prisons, 61% of women and 44% of men
  • In local jails, 75% of women and 63% of men

In the 1950’s, we as a nation were proud to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill by closing state hospitals across the country.  In Deinstitutionalization: A Psychiatric “Titanic” Frontline reported that “in 1955, there were 558,239 severely mentally ill patients in the nation’s public psychiatric hospitals. In 1994, this number had been reduced by 486,620 patients, to 71,619.” It has been an incredible social experiment.  However, upon closer examination it seems we haven’t come too far.

In addition to mental illness, the number of persons who have suffered brain injury in our jails and prisons is also alarming.  According to the CDC, jail and prison studies indicate 25-87% of inmates report having experienced a head injury or TBI as compared to 8.5% in a general population reporting a history of TBI.  Are the people being identified as mentally ill actually suffering from brain injury?  An important question considering our knowledge of mental health problems related to brain injury, such as depression, anxiety, poor impulse control and anger issues.

So, in examining the current population of incarcerated people we see an overabundance of mentally ill and brain injured.  I wonder if we are avoiding the need for treatment and associated costs by renaming these folks “criminals.”

About Nancy Weber, MA, CBIS

Brain Injury Case Manager/Clinical Evaluator

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